Breaking Barriers: Finding Your Way In College

June 17, 2019 Nikki Kaing

To start, I was born on American soil. My parents were refugees escaping Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975 to 1979, and they built up their lives to own a nice house in the suburbs after several years of living in the United States. I was only one of four Asian Americans throughout my time from elementary to senior high school within a predominantly Caucasian community. As a child of different ethnicity, I felt self-conscious and ashamed of my culture since I had no friends to share my customs with. If anything, my peers would find our traditions and customs unusual. Bouts of racist and stereotypical remarks would pop up, but I never understood the severity of those demeaning or rude comments until I was older. The reality of being different due to my ethnicity sank in as years went on, and although I was content and had friends at school, I lived with an uncomfortable awareness that I would be subjected to future discrimination wherever I went.

Upon entering university, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I still feel uncomfortable? Will people accept me? But going to a large university helped build my confidence as an Asian American. Much to my surprise, I was exposed to a diverse group of cultures, people and organizations that offered support catered to your ethnicity (and of course anyone could join, even if they weren’t of that particular race).

In the beginning, I found everything to be a bit strange, mainly because I had never been exposed to a large Asian American community before apart from my own family; however, just like how normal friendships and relationships evolve, I found people and the support of those organizations incredibly helpful. While my experience was fortunate and impactful, I realize, though, that not everyone felt comfortable as quickly as I did or had the same resources available. Making friends is a difficult process wherever you go, especially when you’re tossed into a whole new environment far away from home. But there are ways for students to acclimate quickly, especially for those who consider themselves part of a minority group:

  1. Join Organizations

If your campus has minority clubs, join them. Stay involved and even attempt to be on leadership boards. For me, I was able to experience cultural events for the first time with other students, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival and Lunar New Year.

  1. Be a Leader

If your campus doesn’t have minority organizations, take it into your own hands to start one! Be the voice in advocating for diversity and inclusivity. Not only will you be a leader, but you will also be helping your community, as well.

  1. Extend a Hand

Help others be confident in their culture. Encourage them to join clubs and to go to events because sometimes people just need that extra push.

  1. Share the Experience

Invite friends and family of different ethnicities to cultural events. For example, just because you’re Chinese American doesn’t mean you can’t attend a Korean American event! By encouraging others to experience another’s culture is crucial in expanding cultural awareness across all ethnicities.

No one should feel ashamed or embarrassed about where they’ve come from. To be able to share cultures and increase awareness on campuses is only the start of breaking barriers.

About the Author

Nikki Kaing is a Junior at University of Pittsburgh majoring in Finance.

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