Although Asuncion Miteria Austria, PhD, graduated at the top of her high school class in the Philippines, she couldn't realize her dream of becoming a physician because her family didn't have the money to send her to medical school. At the time, universities in her country did not offer scholarships, says Austria. However, her family could afford to send her to a less-expensive university psychology program, and that is what brought Austria-now head of the clinical psychology program at Milwaukee's Cardinal Stritch University-into the field.
"I thought that studying psychology would give me the opportunity to work in hospitals with doctors," she says. "Though I ultimately ended up in academia."
Even among Filipino Americans, talented students tend to seek out careers as physicians or engineers rather than psychologists, says Austria. As a result, Filipinos may be underrepresented among psychology's ranks. In fact, Austria counts herself as one of only two Filipino psychologists in Wisconsin. In comparison, there are dozens of Filipino psychiatrists, she says.
Although no one tracks subgroups of Asian-American psychologists, National Science Foundation data suggest that, as a broad group, Asian Americans are roughly proportionally represented among psychology PhDs. In 2004, 4.59 percent of new psychology PhDs identified themselves as Asian American, and Asian Americans comprised 4.75 percent of the population, according to U.S. Census estimates.
However, keeping up with the projected growth of the Asian-American population will take continued vigilance by psychology programs and university admissions, says Richard M. Suinn, PhD, APA's 1999 president-the first Asian American to hold the position-and emeritus professor at Colorado State University. What's more, underrepresentation among some subgroups could be hidden in census numbers that lump together people from many different Asian cultures, such as Chinese Americans, Indian Americans and Filipino Americans, he notes.
University summer research programs can encourage Asian Americans to join the ranks of psychologists, as well as efforts such as the Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools diversity project, which brings ethnic-minority psychologists into high schools as guest speakers and role models, he notes. (see July/August Monitor)
"It's important to get one main message out to Asian-American students about psychology as a career: It's that psychology offers the very unique combination of being in a science while also providing help to others," says Suinn. "This is what attracted me to the field and away from my original majors of chemistry and medical technology."
A taste of graduate school
One way to ensure Asian Americans continue to be represented among psychologists is to attract them to universities for a summer of research experience-a strategy used by schools including the University of Oregon and the University of Michigan. Such programs help to counteract cultural bias against psychology as a career, and allow Asian-American and other minority students to connect with potential mentors and each other, Suinn says.
Gordon Nagayama Hall, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, aims to provide such an experience for undergraduate students with a six-week research program. For the past four years, Hall has brought 10 to 12 ethnic-minority students to the University of Oregon to team up with a clinical psychology professor and work on a research project. At the end of the session, they complete a term paper on their findings and present it at a symposium. Funding for the program came from a five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Student-to-student interactions also contribute to the program's success, says Hall. The program participants live in the same dorm, go on outings to the Oregon coast together and attend a party at Hall's house. After meeting at the program, some students stay in touch, providing support and encouragement as they go on to graduate school or to other careers, Hall notes.
And about 77 percent of students who participate in Hall's program go on to apply to psychology graduate programs, as compared with 52 percent of a sample of equally qualified students who did not attend his program.
Other university-based summer research programs have similar success rates, says Stephanie Rowley, PhD, a psychology professor who serves as faculty adviser to the University of Michigan's Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP). SROP brings in up to 90 ethnic-minority undergraduates-including Asian Americans-each year, around 15 of whom work with psychology professors.
Like students at Oregon's summer research program, those at Michigan pair up with professors to work on research projects, which they present to other students at the end of the summer. In addition, participants attend weekly Graduate Record Examination preparation classes and take writing classes.
As a result of the program, many ethnic-minority students apply to Michigan's psychology graduate program.
However, summer research programs alone do not account for all of the University of Michigan's success in attracting and retaining ethnic-minority students, notes Sandra Graham-Bermann, PhD, the university's clinical psychology training director. Many Asian-American graduate students come to the program to work with faculty who study topics in Asian-American psychology, she says.
A case in point: Fourth-year graduate student Amy Tsai came to the University of Michigan clinical psychology program to work with Donna Nagata, PhD. Nagata studies Asian-American families, which fits well with Tsai's goal of researching parent-child relationships across different cultures.
"I do not think her ethnicity directly [affected] my decision to come here," says Tsai. "However, I definitely think that working with Asian-American professors who have succeeded in pursuing an academic career is encouraging, given the lack of minority faculty members in the clinical field in other programs that I have visited."
Hiring ethnic-minority-including Asian-American-faculty also attracts students from similar backgrounds, who in turn may become faculty members themselves, notes Graham-Bermann. In fact, Hall says that seeing Stanley Sue, PhD, in action at the University of Washington encouraged him, as an undergraduate, to pursue psychology as a career.
"Likewise, Asian students see me or other Asian-American professors and it shows them this may be a viable career for them," says Hall.
Such momentum is evident in Michigan's clinical psychology program: 62 percent of students who have received doctorates from the program in the past five years have been from ethnic-minority groups, and 58 percent of the program's faculty members are ethnic minorities.
Graham-Bermann is keeping the ball rolling by sending Asian-American graduate students on recruiting trips to their undergraduate institutions. There they can serve as role models for success while also providing practical information on the school and the application process, she says.
As the Asian-American population grows and becomes more diverse, efforts to recruit faculty such as Hall will be increasingly important, notes Austria. More Asian-American faculty and students in graduate programs means more psychologists who can lead the charge to ensure cultural competency in therapy and research, she says.
"We want our profession to reflect America," she says.
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