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As first-generation college students, many members of the Asian American community at UH struggle to accept opportunities without guilt. Each opportunity serves as a reminder of their parents’ sacrifices, resulting in the compulsion to live by those standards — to achieve “success.”

However, some students are challenging what exactly this success entails.

In the Asian American community, success is equated with securing a prestigious career in STEM. Countless children of Asian immigrants blindly live by this standard, but a select few will question this path they are pushed onto.

Out of these people, the lucky ones have a genuine interest in STEM, but the less fortunate are confronted with the daunting task of defying cultural expectations. 

Reuven Ducay, Quyen La and Austin Le are students at UH majoring in graphic design, hotel restaurant management and music education, respectively. These driven individuals each have unique experiences but boast the same attributes: the courage to pursue their passions and the drive to redefine success for future generations of Asian Americans.

Cultural Pressure

In today’s technology-based society, it is every parent’s dream for their child to pursue a stable, well-paying career in STEM. However, for many first-generation Asian Americans, this dream is a strict expectation.

Le warming up with the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps before a show.

In his senior year of high school, Le applied for a music education major at UH after careful deliberation. Despite studying at his school’s engineering academy for the previous four years, Le knew his happiest moments were with his school’s marching band.

This decision was difficult for his parents to accept. Countless immigrant parents base important life decisions on their children’s professional success. In hopes of supporting their son’s future in engineering, Le’s parents uprooted their lives to live near the engineering academy. Although they ultimately supported Le’s decision, they remained apprehensive.

“I remember my father telling me that they were having their doubts because people that look like us don’t pursue non-STEM career paths,” Le said.

Although the pressure to pursue STEM is derived from parents, it is perpetuated by peers within the Asian American community. In addition to familial rejection, Ducay expressed how the fear of becoming a social outcast contributes to cultural pressure, making the pursuit of passion a difficult choice.

“For most of my life, my parents pushed me and my sister to pursue careers in the STEM field, and in fear of being judged or ridiculed by my parents and peers, I chose to go after a biology degree,” Ducay said. “Witnessing my older sister do the same and seeing her regrets and struggles, I debated a lot with myself about pursuing something more attuned to my personal interests.”

Ducay helping the artist, Bennie Flores, with her art piece titled “The Broken Yardstick” for an exhibition.

Ducay’s parents ultimately accepted his decision to change his major and pursue his passion for graphic design; however, other students are not as lucky as Ducay and Le in this regard. 

La knew at an early age that STEM was not her path. Throughout her academic career, she was committed to focusing on her strengths and fostering her creativity. Unfortunately, her family and cultural community found no merit in her passion for photography and fashion.

“I’ve never been very good at math so my mother was under the impression that I was dumb compared to my other Asian classmates and friends,” La said. “My mother never supported me or approved of my job interests, but I learned early on in life that I had to stop chasing her validation and acceptance and start doing it for myself.” 

Self-fulfillment is viewed as a selfish ideal in many Asian families due to the deeply rooted influence of Confucianism, which values social fulfillment and filial piety.

In American culture, individualism is encouraged whereas, in Asian culture, every life decision represents the child’s respect for their parents’ honor. As a result of these conflicting ideals, countless Asian Americans struggle with their sense of identity. 

Opportunities At UH

Thankfully, UH offers a wide variety of programs and other channels of support to help students connect with like-minded individuals.

Ducay presented what he learned from SoA CAMP, which pairs students of color with mentors of color.

The School of Art Community Artist Mentorship Program matches students of color with professional artists. Through SoA CAMP, Ducay met his mentor, another Filipino artist named Bennie Flores Ansell. 

“Before I was accepted as her mentee, I felt isolated from the Asian community because there was no one in my life pursuing something similar to me,” Ducay said. “I came to learn that my situation wasn’t as rare as I thought it was, and became more confident that I could succeed in living my ideal life.”  

Similar to Ducay, La felt isolated because of her career interests and learned to be her own supporter. 

Fortunately, La is now able to draw support from the friends she’s made at UH as well. La is involved in Gourmet Night, the Vietnamese Student Association and the Filipino Student Association. 

“All three have been beneficial to me in a variety of ways from professional development to creating opportunities for friendships and genuine connections,” La said.

La as a Clinique campus ambassador.

Through Hilton College, La was able to land her first internship as a marketing and convention services intern at Houston First Corporation. La’s old dream of working in fashion was reinvigorated during her time there thanks to her mentor Miranda Korniloff, who worked for Tommy Hilfiger. 

La also credits her high school AP photography teacher, Birdie Gray, as an essential part of her journey due to Gray’s constant encouragement which inspired La to keep pursuing her passions. Likewise, Le lauds his high school band teacher, Joey Chen, for greatly influencing his career decisions. 

“Joey made me the person that I am today. His passion for music really spoke to me, and the way that he always put his students above himself earned my trust and respect. He’s my biggest role model. ” Le said. 

Le explained how his courage to pursue music was garnered from seeing another person who looked like him do it. He mentioned how Chen’s parents didn’t support his passion due to cultural expectations, so Chen sought to guide Le every step of the way, professionally and mentally.

Owing to the Moores School of Music, Le was able to study under Chen’s old teacher Danny Vinson, a euphonium soloist in the Coast Guard, as well as Phillip Freeman, the principal bass trombonist of the Houston Symphony.

Le has had great success in finding valuable professional experiences through Chen. He is proudly finishing his three-year run as a member of the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, a professional marching band that tours the country and competes with other corps over the summer. There Chen was a soloist, drum major and now, educator. 

Professional Endeavors

Defying cultural expectations is daunting, but suppressing your talents is a disservice to yourself and the Asian American community that is in dire need of representation in non-STEM fields. Ducay, La and Le’s leaps of courage have rewarded them with career satisfaction and overall contentment.

Ducay is currently working at UH’s art museum, the Blaffer Art Museum, where he is constantly exposed to rotating exhibitions of fine art from a multitude of artists with different visions, backgrounds and art styles to enrich his creative maturity. Impressively, Ducay is also in his first year of Block, UH’s selective advanced graphic design program based on a highly competitive portfolio review.

A paid collaboration La had with Hero Cosmetics as a brand ambassador.

La boasts a multitude of professional accolades based on her interests in social media and event management, which stem from her love for fashion and photography. As a burgeoning micro-influencer, La has worked as an ambassador for world-renowned brands such as Samsung, Uber Eats, Pentel, Clinique, Dove, PUMA and Maybelline. In addition, she has organized events as an intern for companies such as the American Heart Association and Houston First Corporation.

As for Le, aside from his experience with the prestigious Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, he has grown his desire to pursue a future in music education through working as a teaching aid for the Dawson High School marching band in Pearland ISD.

Even if you aren’t pursuing graphic design, hotel and restaurant management or music education, these brave students’ advice is applicable to any student in a similar situation.

Le teaching the kids in the Pearland High School marching band.

“Don’t pay attention to what other people are saying. If you put yourself into your work, people will acknowledge your talent,” Ducay said. “Do it for yourself, you only have one life and you might as well make yourself the happiest you can and pursue whatever you want.” 

For those without supportive parents, La advises to focus on perseverance and self-love. 

“I would say keep on pushing no matter what! Throughout my life, I’ve experienced a multitude of traumatic events and overcome so many obstacles which led to my mental health constantly changing,” La said. “It’s taken years of perseverance, determination and self-love to get where I am now, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world; I wouldn’t be who I am now without all my experiences.”

Le advises students lacking the courage to pursue music to prioritize personal fulfillment and to have a strong mindset.

“Just go for it! One of the things I told myself is that it’s my life I’m living, don’t live with regrets or while being chained down by parental and cultural pressure,” Le said. “Studying the arts can be an extremely rewarding thing to do, but can also be extremely draining. At that point, it becomes mind over matter. Never let something without a brain beat you.”

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