Keeping the Faith Among Freshmen/First-Year Asian American Students: For the Parents (Part 1)

First off: Congratulations! Your daughter or son is heading off to the university. You should be feeling proud! Keep in mind the great privilege your children have received: less than 7% of the world’s population has a university education. Just getting admitted confers a unique status to your child in this world.

Sure, but does it pay? The next 4 to 5 years will go by in a heartbeat: and upon graduation, your adult child will potentially earn more than 70% over their lifetime than any of their classmates who graduated from high school without a college degree.

So, even if they did not get admitted to (or will attend) the university you wanted for them, your child–your adult child–will likely have a prosperous future before them. And, I would like to believe, that includes sustaining and growing their faith in Christ. More on that in a moment.

In case you’ve read this far and it was missed: I’m a PhD student in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary: My research topic is about how Asian American first-year students make decisions that impact their faith commitment. I am just concluding a pilot study among freshmen (or first-year) students.

As you can tell from my family name, I have an Asian heritage–far more diffused, and I will explain why later–and my wife is Chinese: we were both born in California. I also serve with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and for the last 20 years, the majority of my ministry has been among international students and in churches among Asian Americans. While I bring academic rigor to my research, I also have a stake in what I learn; my children have graduated from different universities, and their faith commitments are intact, but quite distinct from my own.

And that leads to what is next for you: When it comes to what matters most to your child, when it comes what they care about most, or when it comes to their dreams for the future: I am pretty sure from just my pilot study: They haven’t told you.

In fact, some are keeping it under wraps from you for a variety of reasons, experiences, and perceived outcomes. I don’t think that is a surprise to most parents: namely, that our young adult children have a private, inner life that they do not disclose to anyone except– possibly– those for whom they trust will contribute toward the fulfillment of what matters most to them.

Plenty of the first-year students that I’ve met inform me that you want them to become a doctor or an engineer. So, they are studying some major that will contribute toward that goal. Some of those same students really do want to become doctors and engineers! Awesome! And many are doing this, in part because they trust you, and in part because they don’t want to disappoint you.

But, flowing from their interests and faith in Christ, if given the opportunity to serve the poor directly (and not by way of graduating from medical school, etc.) or to become an artist: they would do that in a heartbeat. Here’s where this post gets a little tangled.

As you already know, lots of Asian families put “family first.” Collective matters receive a higher priority than individual concerns. In contrast, when living in North America, much of the social and cultural items, like education, place a higher value on the forming of the individual.

So, while you (and I) were encouraging and empowering our children to perform well in school, the school took that posture our children brought in from us; they attempted to mold it so our children would live with making their individual concerns the highest priorities for their lives. This is a tension that many of us have with our children: They hear at home, “Do what is best for the family,” and that is picked up by good-intentioned educators who articulate and practice: “Do what is best for yourself.”

So, in case your child ever came home and announced, “I want to become an artist”, and went on about that: and you silenced them or ignored them: in part, their announcement was energized over a short amount of time by their experience in school. And it really doesn’t matter if your child attended a private or a public school in North America.

This happened to an friend from East Asia, not long after migrating with his family to the US: He announced, “I want to become an artist,” and his mother’s response was swift: You will either become a doctor or a dentist. End of discussion. And it was…in more ways than one.

He furtively continued to paint, hiding his brushes and paints from his mother, always washing his hands scrupulously to remove any residue of paint, secretly taking art classes in high school and college, always avoiding detection from his mother. He graduated from dental school, and developed a thriving practice. Having disclosed what matters most to his fiancee, he married and they bought a home: and their garage has never had a car inside it and it has always been a studio. His wife loves his art: and for good reason: he’s an excellent painter. His mother has never made a critical comment about his painting to my knowledge. But, it was never the way my friend ever wanted to live, having to keep secret– from his Christian mother– what mattered most to him.

Obviously, my friend’s experience is a unique example of someone who knows his ultimate concern, and orients his life toward the fulfillment of what matters most to him.

Now, I mention this, not because I already know that your child has some ultimate concern that they are hiding from you. They might be hiding it from you, assuming they even know what it is, or hiding a collection of ultimate concerns. Rather, I mention the story for you to be aware that my friend made this discovery of painting in his elementary school in North America, and in part, the tenacity of his commitment to paint was strengthened within a North American educational context that values and supports becoming a unique individual.

Our children–no matter what our family’s cultural history may be–routinely encounter this kind of “hidden curriculum” within their schools and extra-curricular groups. Our children make decisions rather quickly about how they will participate, inasmuch they already know that we want them to succeed. Yet, some of the commitments and the momentum of their participation would never get endorsed by us at home. They are doing this, by and large, by themselves.

And this individuation gets affirmed to the extreme in the university. This affirmation can work in some peculiar ways upon the faith of our adult children, both developing and denying their faith commitment, but certainly encouraging and empowering their ultimate concerns.

But, make no mistake: plenty of the first-year students want their faith and their ultimate concerns to meet up in the world, or “to make a difference” in the name of Christ.

What should we do, as parents, even if our adult child doesn’t know their ultimate concerns? There are no “silver bullets”, no formulas for which we “add water and stir,” no weekend seminars to repair and heal broken (or incomplete) relationships. I will make some suggestions in my next post about the days ahead: that days precede the day you assist your child with moving into their university residence hall.

Meanwhile, please pray for yourself and your adult child. Plenty of parents make the abrupt discovery that their former high school student is moving out of the home to the university, and is unlikely to ever become a permanent resident again: that discovery can be tough on the heart. Pray for your adult child to be and become wise regarding how they live into what matters most to them. Pray that you and your adult child will continue to follow Jesus, albeit in some new ways apart from each other. Thank God for the great privilege your adult child has received in even being admitted to any college or university. Pray that their faith in Christ and their ultimate concerns will meet in the development of skills and competencies to participate in the mission of God.

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