When Whistling Vivaldi was first recommended to me, my initial response was, “I already know what stereotype threat is. Why do I need to read about it?” In other words, I was your standard punk-ass college student. I had never really given concentrated thought to stereotype threat in the broader context of society, or how it affected people who weren’t me. But this book gave me a deeper understanding of how stereotype threat happens and how it can be combated. My only regret from finally reading it is that I didn’t read it before starting college. Now that I’ve finally dragged myself to the finish line for my bachelor’s degree (after 6 years!), it seems especially bittersweet that this book helped me recognize some of what was happening to me right at the end of my journey.
I haven’t felt so compelled to share a book with other people in years. Reading, for me, is usually for entertainment or personal development, and I go from book to book without wanting to sit down and reflect in a way that is useful for others. This book is different. I feel obligated to share Whistling Vivaldi because it made me burst into tears from recognition of my own past pain. I didn’t think I needed affirmation that my experiences in college were shared by others, but I did. This book gave me time to reflect on moments of self-doubt from the past and helped me re-interpret them in the context of stereotype threat instead.
This book is useful both as a tool for self-reflection (even if you don’t consider yourself as a minority!) and as a tool for supporting others. I want more people affected by stereotype threat to read this book so they can have the time to think back on their own experiences and how they were impacted. I want more people in general to read this book to gain empathy for what students, coworkers, and friends might be suffering from without realizing.
When I was 17, I desperately wanted colleges to accept me based only on my academic achievements — my “merit” — without consideration for external factors. My family and school counselors insisted that I emphasize my immigrant family / low income status in order to gain sympathy from admissions officers. To me, that meant not getting into my dream school through my own talent. I spent my first year at Stanford doubting myself and fearing that people would realize I wasn’t talented enough to be there. This sounds like textbook impostor syndrome, but it was worsened by constant comments about my minority status. Students from other high schools said they wished they had my background so they could get into whatever schools they wanted. Everyone assumed it must have been easy for me to get accepted. Stanford likes poors like me. Of course I got in. I learned to not mention my upbringing because people would think less of my qualifications and belonging at Stanford if they knew.
At the end of my sophomore year, I was lucky to end up in a required writing course with a black professor who understood what I was going through (having spent over a decade working on social justice issues). She encouraged me to investigate affirmative action stigma for my term paper as a way of understanding my own feelings about being a “diversity pick.” My paper focused on research surrounding the psychological impact of being considered a diversity pick on minority students. That research is what I want to summarize now.
I’m a Vietnamese American woman in technology. That is not synonymous with being an Asian American in technology. Here’s the shortest summary of my background I can give: My parents escaped Vietnam on a boat and moved to the United States in 1990 with barely any understanding of the English language. We grew up poor and I pulled myself through high school and university with little guidance from others. I worked after school until 10–11pm several nights a week throughout high school for my family. My high school nearly lost accreditation while I was there, which would have made my diploma useless. There’s so much more to my upbringing than that, but I’ll save it for another time.
I don’t know when it became uncool to be sincere. I used to think it was a problem with kids these days, but it seems to occur among people of all ages. I have a hard time defining the exact attitude that I’m so bothered by, but it’s… it’s the embarrassment and shame that is somehow associated with hard work, sincerity, and failing at something you tried so hard for.
One of my favorite outreach activities at Stanford is being a Project Motivation panelist for ethnic/socioeconomic minority high school students. As a panelist, I talk about what it was like for me to go to a low performing high school, what they can do to get into a good college, and what doubts I had about going to a competitive university. Participating in these types of panels requires a different form of empathy and understanding that isn’t as necessary in regular college admissions panels.
There is a particular moment that keeps ringing in my mind when I think about college admissions and the way we talk to minority students.
I was answering the usual questions students tend to want to hear about: my high school preparation, financial aid, and leaving my hometown. One student asked about how to set himself apart from other students in his personal statement.
Another panelist gave the spiel everyone has heard at least once in their lives: just follow your passions, find something you’re truly dedicated to, start a charity, build something cool, etc. He glowed as he talked about making movies with his friends, then going on to do film studies at Stanford.
I could feel the tension building behind each student’s eyes.
In my natural state, I am a sloth. Setting aside basic human needs, I would nearly always choose curling up in a warm bed over having to deal with the outside world. The outside world is loud and unpredictable and kind of smells weird. My bed is soft and warm and comfortable.
On my way home from work, I was thinking about why I bother to do anything. Sure, I enjoy things like learning and eating tasty food, but school is stressful and buying food requires interacting with people. Why do I get so worked up over my grades and other little things when none of it will really matter, anyway? I could be okay with living a life of minimal effort. I could avoid anything that requires exertion.
I reached the stairwell of my apartment building. It was pretty dark out, but I could still see the steps. I only had to walk up two flights of stairs. I mindlessly wondered whether I should turn the light on for such a short distance.
Why do I ever choose anything but bed?
What’s the point of turning on the light when it’ll take less than a minute to get inside? It might disturb my neighbors. It stays on for a set amount of time, so it’ll stay on after I get inside. I don’t like the dark, but I can get upstairs just the same either way. It’s a waste of electricity. It seems like a bother for such a short distance. The end result won’t change and it’s really the most insignificant thing in the world. It doesn’t matter.
Why do I do anything?
I turned on the light.
How a guy blindly following bad advice unwittingly led to harassment, manipulation, and me questioning my safety.
It began innocently enough: A classmate read my first Medium post and messaged me on Facebook to discuss it. It soon devolved into a debate about the women’s rights movement as a whole, rather than just the aspects I had discussed in my post. This debate spanned several days. I felt as though we were having the same argument over and over, and he eventually said he believed the women’s rights movement was “overblown” and that the glass ceiling was not really an issue.
Date a girl who isn’t a romanticized idea that you’ve built up in your head. Date a girl who pursues what she loves, whether it’s clothes or books or traveling. She might not like the things you like, but at least she’s her own person and not just someone who lives her life around you.
On the last night of finals week this past spring quarter, I was exhausted from finishing exams and still grading my students’ programming assignments. I couldn’t fall asleep because my mind didn’t want to forget what I was feeling by the next morning, so I had to write it all out in a journal (on paper! whoa!) before I could finally stop thinking about it. I neglected transcribing this until now, half out of embarrassment and half because it’s something I still change my mind about. Here it is, (mostly) unedited.
I didn’t want to study computer science when I came to college. The idea seemed downright frightening before I took an introductory class on a whim midway through freshman year. I don’t think my experience is unique — so many people avoid computer science out of fear only to realize that they almost missed out on something wonderful. There are so many ways misconceptions and myths about computer science unnecessarily discourage people from trying out this field. By explaining some of my own doubts and misconceptions, I hope this will provide a window into the minds of those of us who are or were afraid of computer science. Continue reading