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The City Journals

Asian-American high school students 
encouraged to tap ‘superhero’ potential

Mar 29, 2019 10:07AM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

With a playful, larger-than-life-size blowup bottle of the popular Thai sriracha sauce in the background, members of the University of Utah’s Asian-American Student Association greet conference attendees.


By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

“Motivated” was a common word Asian-American high school students across the state felt, after attending the 20th-annual Asian-American High School Conference Feb. 28 at the University of Utah. This year’s theme — “Shaping Superheroes; Creating Positive Change” — was a powerful one, providing context to the keynote and breakout sessions.

The conference seeks to help Asian-Americans high school students be prepared for collegiate success, and, even more importantly, be prepared to embrace their everyday, figurative “superhero” potential as community leaders.

“When a student is passionate about something, their drive is extraordinary,” informs the conference brochure. “As such, students will learn about issues facing the Asian and Asian American communities and how they can use their passions and educations to create critical, sustainable, and positive changes in their own communities.”

Students treated to ‘Who’s Who’ of Asian, Asian-American scholars

Students attending the conference received academic resources, including scholarship guidance, admissions counseling, and opportunities to meet and connect with university faculty, staff, and students.

Graduate students, professors, and university administrators from not just the University of Utah, but also from Salt Lake Community College and Westminster College participated in the event.

Distinguished academicians, including a Rhodes Scholar and a Guggenheim Fellowship winner, politicians, and successful entrepreneurs also participated in the event.

Academic disciplines represented ranged from electrical engineering to ethnic studies; from history to humanities; from medicine to music education; and from art history to Asian studies.

Asians as Superheroes, through world history and mythology

“Our Asian identity is not something to be ashamed of,” advised Matt Wong, a self-described “Cantonese American” who attended Salt Lake Community College and now works at the university.

In a breakout session, Wong recounted stories of historical and mythical Asian superheroes and challenged students to liberally share their own family history and stories, particularly “if your family is recent immigrants.”

He cited Ishikawa Goemon, “A Japanese Robin Hood” from the 1800s and another figure from that century, the Hindu queen Lakshmibai who led troops to battle for independence against British colonization.

He also shared his family’s reverence for the contributions of Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China and the forerunner of democratic revolution in the People’s Republic of China, which overthrew the last Chinese imperial dynasty.

In more recent history, Wong cited what he considered heroism of the “No-No Boys” of World War II who protested America’s unconstitutional treatment of 110,000 Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps, yet were, themselves, asked to serve in the military.

Following up on a subtheme of the conference — that Asians can be stereotyped and must move beyond those stereotypes — Dr. Paul Fisk shared with students a vibrant future outside of what people consider or even uniquely recommend as careers for Asians (e.g. careers limited to science or engineering). One of Marvel Studio’s upcoming films will be its first superhero movie featuring an Asian protagonist. The film has signed a Chinese-American writer and is considering a variety of Asian and Asian-American directors, with the goal being to “introduce a new hero who blends Asian and Asian American themes, crafted by Asian and Asian American filmmakers.” Those are jobs that students could look forward to in the future, Fisk indicated.

Students attending the conference looked forward to applying what they learned. A student from Taylorsville wants to take the inspiration and tools to help coach her younger sister through school. Other students shared challenges in negotiating their Asian history with being raised in “white communities” and, for biracial students, the everyday anguish of and not having “white relatives” honor or appreciate their Asian roots. One young woman indicated feeling like a literal alien. On the difficulty of being Asian in predominately white schools, a student from, arguably, the state’s most diverse high school, West High School in Salt Lake City, observed, “When your parent has an accent, they look down on you.” West’s studentbody represents students from homes where more than 120 different languages are spoken.