The Rocky Path to Higher Education: A Review of Try Harder!

History of Asian American Education in The United States

Early Asian American access to education can be traced back to Tape v. Hurley (1885), which took place 70 years before Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Joseph and Mary Tape, two San Francisco Chinese immigrant parents, fought to legally challenge Spring Valley School’s decision to bar their daughter from attending the local all-white public school. The school board’s original decision to deny Mamie Tape’s enrollment was based on her Chinese ancestry; she was not considered a United States citizen vis-à-vis the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Ultimately, the Tapes won as the California Supreme Court issued a decision, allowing those of Chinese descent to attend California public schools. However, the prevalent ideology of “separate but equal” racial segregation in schools was upheld until Brown v. Board of Education.

Yet over a century later, Asian American students are still fighting an uphill battle in higher education. The five-year saga of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard (2014) found Harvard not guilty of discrimination against Asian Americans students in 2019. Even so, the reality of low Asian American admissions to Ivy League schools persist as a reminder of the bamboo ceiling that weigh on the minds of young Asian American students. While the plaintiff presented evidence demonstrating how Asian American applicants “are significantly stronger than all other racial groups in academic performance” and “very well in non-academic categories,” Professor David Card (Harvard’s key witness) insisted Harvard’s “subjective” assessment of a candidate’s personality rating, found Asian American students to have less “positive personalities” compared to White applicants. The fight continues, as SFFA has filed a petition to appeal the decision in late February 2021.

“Try Harder!” Looks into the Current Fight for College Admissions

The topic of personality and passion within Debbie Lum’s new documentary, Try Harder! stands in stark contrast to the racial bias and racial stereotyping of Asian Americans discussed in the SFFA v. Harvard case. Since the film’s premiere at Sundance and now at SDAFF’s Spring Showcase, director Debbie Lum spoke about the opportunities she’s had to show her film with college admissions committees. “They say it’s kind of shocking that they find the film revealing, shocking, and full of tears,” she explained. “They’re wondering, ‘Oh what is the impact of our policy on these kids?’”

Filmed in 2016-2017, the documentary mainly follows five students (Ian, Alvan, Sophia, Shea and Rachel) at Lowell High School, and their journey into the tumultuous and competitive world of college admissions. The prestigious San Francisco public high school not only has a world class orchestra, but a student body filled with talented, bright young minds being put through a meat grinder of trials and tribulations during their last year of high school. However, it’s not all doom and gloom; each student’s personality jumps out on the screen in and outside the classroom.

Although the students are all academically adept and well-rounded, as expected of top students, the Gen Z class is under immense pressure to differentiate themselves. Even for non-Asian students, the students of Lowell all feel the hefty weight of admissions and feel dehumanized, as there are historical implications that Stanford sees them as “AP guzzling machines” or “robots.” Stanford has only a 4.4% undergraduate acceptance rate, and anecdotally, the university almost always rejects students from Lowell. Lum takes great care to shape each student’s personal struggles and familial struggles on top of their academic/extracurricular work in the film’s narrative.

Furthermore, the stress placed on Asian American students juxtaposes the differences between first- and second-generation families—an aspect not often seen compared to the more popular picture of Tiger Moms and Tiger Cubs. Take Alvan, whose Taiwanese parents focus more on academics and encourage him down the more traditional route of applying to top schools. On the other hand, Ian’s mother, Suzanne— who also attended Lowell—explains their family originally wanted Ian to go to a neighborhood school so that he wouldn’t have to experience the same hardships as she did. Ian reveals that his mother helped turn him around and “see doors that were open.” It’s clear the road for each student is broader than one might expect.

Try Harder! is a heartwarming film that leaves the viewer cheering for the students as they put forward their best efforts to get accepted into their top choice universities. The film doesn’t dive too far into mental health, but Lum’s thought-provoking storytelling challenges pre-existing assumptions around the lives of Gen Zers. The academic environment now compared to 10 years ago is more competitive than ever, and with this film comes the seeds of thought for improvement to the college admission system.

Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

Recommended Articles