February 18, 2003
By Han, ShinHee (counselor)
I have been a counselor for Korean-American undergraduate students
at Columbia University, Barnard College and Northwestern University
for a long time. Over this time I have realized that although these
students are intelligent, many of them are suffering from psychological
difficulties and are unable to adjust to college life.
Of all the students who came to the counseling, almost half of
them were Asian, and about 50 percent of those Asians were Koreans.
They are stressed, especially during the start of a new semester,
midterms and final exam periods.
The level of depression of Koreans and other Asian students is
much higher than that of other American students. There are extreme
cases that lead to dropping out of school. For example, if the level
1 is set for the most satisfaction and 10 is for the extreme sense
of self-destruction, most American students came to see me when
they are in level 4 or 5 feeling that they have some psychological
problem. However, for Asian American students, they often don't
visit a counselor even when in level 8 or 9 and are forced to come
to me by school advisers or professors.
Most Korean students who came to the counseling service are second
generation. In many cases, the conflict comes from their relationships
with parents that usually hold these patterns:
First, miscommunication occurred between parents and children.
Second, each generation has different values and attitudes; for
example, the first generation tends to hold one-sided conversation
- parents to children. But their children have grown up in a culture
that encourages self-expression and having conversation on an equal
level, which is considered rude in their parents'culture.
Third, children feel pressured to compensate their parents for
their efforts with high achievements, meeting their parents'idea
of the American dream.
I remember a case of 29-year-old daughter who suffered from a
miscommunication with her parents. She entered college 10 years
ago but serious psychological problems drove her to quit school
and eventually she began taking drugs.
I talked to her and learned about her brother's death from drowning
after he graduated from senior high school. Worrying that she might
take his death too hard, her father told her in Korean, "Don't
worry about your brother and just concentrate on your life."She
thought that meant that she should not care about her family.
While she took her counseling this woman could understand what
her father intended to say after her brother's accident and recovered
from her psychological problem.
Also, Korean parents like to push their children to do well solely
on school. This can cause problems. One Korean student could not
adapt to a college life because, before college, he had to spend
all his spare time in private tutoring rather than with friends
or engaging in extracurricular activities.
Another female student said her mother kept saying to her that
she has to help the family out as soon as she "grew up"and
should compensate her parents for the time and money they were spending
for her. She could not adjust to the school because she was obsessed
with the idea that she had to repay her parents.
The strong sense of burden among Korean American children comes
from the feeling of obligation to achieve the American Dream for
their parents. One
good example is that of a female student, who was born and raised
in Texas. Her father has a Ph.D. in the United States. However,
he could not get his stable position as a professor.
The Dean of her school asked me to advise her. In the session,
she said, "My parents sacrificed for my education in the United
States. If they were in Korea, my father would have been a successful
professor and our status would be socially and economically much
better than now." The need to work hard for her father gave
her such a psychological burden that she had hard time in college
keeping her studies.
Finally, many Asian immigrants believe that they have to be a
"model minority."In other words, they have to be successful
in the United States. In reality, among Asian students, those who
enter "prestigious schools"number only about nine percent.
The remaining students go to other private or state colleges. Many
parents still push their children even though they get B or B+.
It is not helpful to push children to always be on the top when
they are not. And also, parents need to express their love and care.
In sum, the first generation has to communicate with children
as much as possible and let them have more experience in building
their sense of independence and social skills.
For example, it is good for senior high school students to work
as baby sitters or cashiers in a deli, to allow them understand
different groups of people and feel responsible and independent.
In addition, they have to be encouraged to visit a counselor if
they feel depressed or stressed.
Translated from Korean by JooYeon Lee
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