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The Centrality of Critical Agency: How Asian American College Students Develop Commitments to Social Justice

by Samuel D. Museus - 2021

Context: Systemic oppression is one of the most pressing problems in U.S. society. However, relatively little is known about the process by which college students become committed to social justice agendas. In addition, systematic empirical inquiries that examine how Asian American students, in particular, develop such commitments are difficult to find.

Purpose/Research Question: This inquiry was focused on understanding the process by which Asian American college students develop commitments to social justice. The following overarching research question guided the inquiry: How do Asian American college students cultivate a commitment to social justice?

Research Design: Using a qualitative approach grounded in a critical paradigm, individual interviews were conducted with Asian American college students involved in social justice activism and advocacy.

Data Collection and Analysis: A single, semistructured 60-minute face-to-face individual interview was conducted with each participant. The data were analyzed in three phases, using line-by-line, focused, and axial coding. Memos were also used throughout the data analysis process to capture thoughts, make comparisons, and clarify connections across data points.

Findings: The analysis shows how environmental threats that create a sense of urgency, sources of knowledge that foster collective critical consciousness, and models of critical agency contribute to students developing their own critical agency, which ultimately leads to social justice commitments.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The current study extends prior knowledge by demonstrating that critical agency is salient in Asian American students developing commitments to engage in social justice agendas. The findings also contribute to existing research by offering some evidence that ongoing opportunities to cultivate critical consciousness and connections to agents who model social justice interact and converge with key environmental threats to shape critical agency. The study also provides some initial evidence that Asian American parents can catalyze studentsí critical agency and social justice commitments through serving as sources of knowledge that increase studentsí awareness about social injustices and modeling how to contribute to a more just world, while college curricula across diverse disciplines and peer networks that center social injustices also help foster critical consciousness that leads to social justice commitments among some Asian American students.

Systemic oppression is one of the most pressing problems in U.S. society. Systemic forms of oppression have a wide range of devastating consequences, such as higher levels of poverty, decreased civic participation, and increased mental health concerns (Feagin, 2013; Feagin & Bennefield, 2014; Payne, 2005; Wray-Lake & Hart, 2012). Within higher education, systemic injustices manifest in pervasive inequities in educational opportunities and outcomes. For these reasons and many more, it is not surprising that the last decade has seen widespread public demand to address structural oppression (Ferguson, 2017).

The relationship between systemic oppression and higher education is a complex one. On one hand, many argue that the nation’s higher education system reinforces systems of oppression (Chesler et al., 2005; Ferguson, 2012; Museus et al., 2015). For example, higher education institutions have often prioritized prestige, prosperity, and economic vitality over social justice agendas (Museus & LePeau, 2019). Historically, when social justice movements have pressured postsecondary institutions to be more equitable, these campuses have often permitted isolated or incremental changes while resisting calls for larger and more pervasive systemic transformation (Ferguson, 2017). At the same time, institutions of higher education have also been a critical site for efforts to eradicate systemic oppression, and college students have historically and consistently played key roles in social justice movements that affect broader society (Rhoads, 1998).

While student activism was once framed as a problem in scholarly literature, most researchers over the last 30 years have suggested that activism is a valuable form of engagement that leads to positive developmental outcomes (Kezar & Maxey, 2014; Quaye, 2007). Unfortunately, relatively little is known about the process by which college students become committed to social justice agendas. In addition, systematic empirical inquiries that examine how Asian American college students, in particular, develop such commitments are difficult to find. This gap in knowledge could be due to misconceptions that Asian American college students do not face structural challenges and are therefore complacent (Yi et al., 2020). Indeed, such racialized misconceptions contribute to the invisibility of research on Asian American college students in general (Museus, 2009) and therefore could also be responsible for the lack of attention given to their role in social justice efforts.

The current inquiry was aimed at addressing these limitations in existing knowledge. Specifically, the current analysis was focused on understanding the process by which Asian American college students develop commitments to social justice. In the following section, literature from social movements theory and higher education is used to briefly delineate the factors that might shape Asian American college students’ commitments to social justice. The remainder of the article focuses on a qualitative analysis that generates insights into how Asian American college students who are dedicated to advancing social justice have developed these commitments. The article concludes with implications for research and practice.

While the current study did not employ a predetermined theoretical framework, social justice commitments constituted the sensitizing concept to guide the inquiry (Bowen, 2006). The following sections provide an overview of factors that evidence indicates might shape social justice commitments. First, the potential role of critical agency in shaping commitments to social justice is described. Then, an overview of research on key contextual factors that might shape such agency, including political contexts and networks for educators and peers, is provided.


Critical agency is central to the current analysis, and it consists of a few essential elements: agency, critical collective consciousness, and urgency. First, consistent with most definitions of “agency,” the term “critical agency” implies that people have some degree of free will, even if their actions are limited by structural constraints (Baez, 2000a, 2000b). However, it is important to note that one can exercise agency with no intention to challenge existing oppressive structures and instead do so in ways that reinforce them (Solórzano & Bernal, 2001).

A second element of critical agency is a critical collective consciousness, or understanding of structural oppression and the harm caused by it. There is some evidence that critical consciousness, or an awareness of systemic oppression, is an important precursor to involvement in social justice work (Freire, 2018; Solórzano & Bernal, 2001). In addition, people of color are often denied spaces to cultivate their racial identities (Museus et al., in press), and cultivating an identification with historically oppressed communities is important in their becoming engaged in social justice agendas (Espiritu, 1992; Museus, 2014; Okamoto, 2003). Therefore, the term “critical collective consciousness” is used to refer to knowledge of how systemic oppression determines the histories and experiences of the racial and ethnic communities to which one belongs.

Finally, critical agency encompasses an urgency to act to address systemic violence and advance social justice. Explicitly incorporating urgency into the conceptualization of critical agency is useful because it is possible for individuals to be conscious of systemic injustices and have free will without necessarily feeling the need to take action to address the former (Solórzano & Bernal, 2001). In contrast, if people feel a sense of urgency, they might be more likely to embrace and use their agency to resist systemic violence and advocate for social justice (Cho et al., 2006).

Based on the three aforementioned elements, critical agency is defined herein as individuals’ capacity to understand systemic forms of violence toward historically oppressed communities and the sense of urgency to act and eradicate these systemic problems. Although the concept of critical agency has received some attention in postsecondary education research (Baez, 2000a, 2000b; Kiyama et al., 2012), empirical analyses that focus on understanding it are sparse. The empirical research that does exist on this topic shows that college administrators, faculty, and community members can cultivate networks of critical agency to critique the role that institutions of higher education play in reinforcing systemic inequities (Baez, 2000a, 2000b), and foster commitments to redefine these structures (Kiyama et al., 2012). In contrast, the role that such agency plays in shaping initial commitments to social justice work are more difficult to find. In addition, surprisingly little has been written about the ways in which college students cultivate, embrace, and enact such agency. Finally, empirical studies that focus on how students in general—and Asian American students in particular—cultivate critical agency are virtually nonexistent.

Within the larger body of research on social movements and activism, there are conflicting findings regarding the environmental and experiential factors that lead students to engage in social justice (Connor, 2019). On one hand, some studies suggest that key incidents or moments lead individuals to become engaged in social justice work (Han, 2009; Phoenix & Arora, 2018; Warren, 2010). In contrast, other research suggests that many factors, such as access to spaces that foster critical consciousness, can slowly shape individual commitments to engage in social justice work over time (Connor, 2019; Museus et al., 2012; Ryoo & Ho, 2013). However, the ways in which these contextual realities might influence commitments to social justice through their impact on critical agency are not well understood. The next section argues that the aforementioned contextual and experiential influences might not be mutually exclusive but instead interact to shape Asian American college students’ decisions to commit to social justice work, and the current study highlights how they might do so through contributing to a sense of critical agency.


Systemic oppression is a source of substantial violence committed toward Asian American communities (Iftikar & Museus, 2019; Kim, 1999; Museus & Park, 2015; Takaki, 1989). One of the most common manifestations of systemic violence toward Asian Americans is the model minority stereotype, which essentializes Asian Americans as an academically and occupationally hypersuccessful population (Park, 2008; Suzuki, 2002). Because this myth depicts Asian Americans as relatively successful at assimilation and benefitting from the supposed meritocracy that exists within the United States, this trope often portrays this population as passive and less likely to challenge the status quo (Yi et al., 2020). This racial trope also functions to mask significant inequalities within Asian America and legitimize the exclusion of Asian Americans from higher education research and conversations about social justice (Grim et al., 2019; Hartlep, 2015; Museus & Kiang, 2009). Important to note is that some Asian American subgroups (e.g., Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian, and Vietnamese) are especially underresourced, face significant inequities, and are often marginalized in larger Asian American discourse (Kiang, 2009).

Despite the overgeneralization that Asian Americans are “successfully” integrated into U.S. society, scholars note that these communities can never be viewed as fully insiders or fully “American” (Kim, 1999). This perpetual outsider status is partly a function of Asian Americans also being socially constructed as foreigners who are threats to Western societies and ways of life when it serves the needs of those in positions of power (Dao, 2017; Jeung et al., 2020; Lee, 2007; Nagata, 1998; Saito, 2001). This racialization of Asian Americans as a yellow peril has fueled a wide range of manifestations of systemic forms of racial violence toward Asian Americans, such as anti-Asian legislation banning immigration of Chinese and Japanese people to the United States over 100 years ago (Lee, 2007); the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II (Nagata, 1998); widespread Islamophobia that has permeated society and affected the lives of many Arab and South Asian Americans since the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 (Saito, 2001); deportation of undocumented Asian Americans and other undocumented immigrants from the United States (Dao, 2017); and the recent spread of anti-Asian sentiment and spike in anti-Asian hate crimes resulting from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on U.S. society (Jeung et al., 2020).

The same anti-immigrant racism that has historically shaped the experiences of Asian American communities has fueled the recent rise in xenophobic rhetoric toward immigrants more broadly in the United States (Demata, 2017). In November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Much of his presidential campaign was grounded in rhetoric promoting fear toward and hatred of immigrants. For example, one of his central campaign promises was the construction of a border wall that would serve as a symbol of U.S. separation from Mexico and a barrier to immigrants seeking to enter the United States. His election sparked a spike in hate crimes (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2016), including acts of overt hostility and violence toward Asian Americans (Phoenix & Arora, 2018). Immediately after Trump took office, he signed an executive order to ban immigration from nine African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American nations throughout the globe (Fullerton, 2017).

Existing research also shows that systemic forms of oppression heavily shape Asian American students’ lives on college campuses specifically (Chou & Feagin, 2008; Museus & Park, 2015; Yi et al., 2020). The model minority trope can result in the failure to consider these students in institutional policy and practice, thereby normalizing their exclusion and marginalization on their respective campuses (Yi & Museus, 2015). In addition, evidence suggests that Asian American students report experiencing daily racism in the form of racial stereotypes, epithets, and profiling on their campuses (Chou & Feagin, 2008; Museus & Park, 2015). Yet, while evidence suggests that such systemic violence negatively influences Asian American undergraduates’ experiences, questions remain regarding how such experiences might shape their commitments to and involvement in social justice (Grim et al., 2019).

There is some indication that Trump’s rise and the increased anti-immigrant sentiment might have an impact on Asian American college students’ commitments to social justice. For example, national survey data show that fear resulting from Trump’s election has led some Asian Americans in broader society to engage in political processes, such as through protest, community work, and voting and donating to political campaigns (Phoenix & Arora, 2018). In addition, some researchers note that Trump’s election was accompanied by heightened volatility that shaped the climate on college and university campuses for social justice activists (Logan et al., 2017). These findings suggest that Trump’s rise might be a triggering event for many people who recently decided to commit to social justice. However, systematic empirical studies of the impact that the Trump election and its resulting dynamics have had on Asian American undergraduates’ commitments to social justice are virtually nonexistent.


Existing research suggests that Asian American students’ networks might have an impact on their commitments to social justice as well. First, there is some indication that family members might hinder Asian American students’ involvement in social and political affairs, and parental pressures might detract from Asian American students pursuing educational pathways that might encourage such work (Museus, 2013; Yi et al., 2020). In a qualitative analysis of parental influences on 24 Southeast Asian American undergraduates’ educational trajectories, Museus (2013) found that parents sometimes encouraged their children to pursue more economically lucrative and secure pathways (e.g., becoming a physician, attorney, or engineer), which can pose challenges to students wanting to pursue majors and careers that focus on social justice (e.g., community organizing, education, or politics). However, the students who engaged their parents in dialogue and explained their reasons for desiring to have a positive societal impact also garnered their parents’ support to pursue such studies and lines of work. Yet, studies that focus on the impact of parents, as well as siblings, on Asian American students’ commitments to social justice are difficult to find.

Second, evidence suggests that educators and peers play a role in students developing social justice commitments (Kiang, 2009; Museus, 2008; Museus et al., 2012, 2016, 2018; Nguyen et al., 2018; Osajima, 2007; Ryoo & Ho, 2013). In particular, scholarship indicates that networks of educators and students create and sustain ethnic studies programs and ethnic student organizations, which shape the experiences of Asian American students in significant ways (Kiang, 2009; Museus, 2008; Museus et al., 2012, 2016, 2018; Nguyen et al., 2018; Osajima, 2007; Ryoo & Ho, 2013). Especially relevant to the current inquiry is the fact that Asian American Studies programs can foster Asian American students’ connections to their cultural communities and identities, motivating them to engage in social justice activism and advocacy (Museus et al., 2016; Osajima, 2007; Ryoo & Ho, 2013). In addition, there is some empirical evidence that ethnic student organizations provide a vehicle for Asian American students to collectively advocate for their communities (Museus, 2008).

However, much remains to be learned about how educator and peer networks influence students’ commitments to social justice agendas. For example, while research demonstrates that culturally relevant pedagogy and curricula increase Asian American students’ connections to their cultural communities and strengthen their Asian American identity (Kiang, 2009; Museus et al., 2016; Ryoo & Ho, 2013), it does not necessarily center the role that these units play in cultivating critical agency. Indeed, while one embracing their racial identity and cultivating critical agency might be often intertwined, it is possible that academic programs and student organizations cultivate and strengthen Asian American college students’ connections and identification with their racial community without fostering such agency. Therefore, analyzing the role of critical agency might shed light on the mechanisms through which these campus networks foster Asian American students’ commitments to social justice.

This literature has other limitations as well. For example, whether and how educators and peers might serve as role models that foster social justice commitments among their students is understudied. Similarly, existing research on how non-ethnic studies curricula influence Asian American students’ social justice comments is difficult to find. Therefore, more research is needed on the varied ways in which campus networks might shape Asian American students’ critical agency and, ultimately, commitments to social justice in college.


The current inquiry is a response to several aforementioned gaps in knowledge. The study was designed to better understand the conflicting perspectives regarding the most salient factors that catalyze social justice commitments and fill existing gaps in knowledge about the role of critical agency in Asian American college students’ experiences and the role of campus networks in Asian Americans developing commitments to social justice.

The following overarching research question guided the inquiry: How do Asian American college students cultivate a commitment to social justice? Two additional subquestions helped guide the analysis: (1) What, if any, role does critical agency play in Asian American college students’ commitments to social justice? (2) How, if at all, do environmental contexts shape Asian American students’ critical agency? Through answering these research questions, the study sought to generate insights that can inform future empirical research on Asian Americans college students engaged in social justice work and efforts to foster Asian American undergraduates’ commitments to social justice activism and advocacy.


The current inquiry was grounded in a critical paradigm, which highlights social problems related to power and is aimed at positive societal transformation (Hadley, 2019). Research that is grounded in a critical perspective is driven by goals of emancipation and empowerment of historically oppressed people (Horkheimer, 1993). This critical paradigm permitted the analysis of how inequitable social systems and sources of resistance to them might contribute to the empowerment of Asian American college students in the current analysis.


Asian American college students who self-identify as engaged in social justice efforts were sought for participation in the current study. Given that these students had developed commitments to social justice and were therefore most likely to have the capacity to provide rich information about this process, they were deemed ideal for helping answer the current research question. Participants were recruited with the help of the Midwest Asian American Student Union (MAASU). MAASU is a regional consortium of Asian American student unions from 25 campuses in the Midwest geographic region and hosts an annual conference for undergraduate Asian American student leaders. MAASU served as an ideal partner for the current study because its annual conference (1) includes programming that focuses on social justice issues within and related to Asian American communities, (2) is primarily geared toward undergraduate Asian American students, and (3) provides a venue where a large network of Asian American college student gathers each year.

In spring 2017, students who registered for the annual MAASU conference were invited to participate in a survey that served as a screening questionnaire for the current inquiry. The screening questionnaire included items about whether respondents self-identified as someone who engages in social justice work and a range of demographic characteristics (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, class). The survey also included 18 Likert items, scaled from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), related to participants’ perspectives about the nature of oppression and their commitments to social justice. Examples of Likert items include “Historically, in the U.S., racism has been one reason that people of color have been less likely to have access to the most qualified medical professionals compared to Whites,” and “I am motivated to advocate for historically marginalized communities.” Approximately 300 Asian American undergraduates participated in the screening questionnaire and were asked if they would be willing to participate in a follow-up face-to-face interview.

From those who expressed interest in participating in an interview, purposeful sampling for intensity and variation was employed to select a dozen participants (Patton, 2002). First, intensity sampling refers to selecting cases most likely to provide rich information to help answer the research questions, prompting the use of responses to the oppression and justice survey items to select students most likely to be knowledgeable about the topic. Scores from the 18 Likert-scale items were summed to create a composite social justice commitment score, and potential participants were limited to those who scored in the top 10% according to these calculations. Second, maximum variation sampling refers to seeking diversity in the sample so that findings can be transferable across demographic subgroups within the community participating in the inquiry, and it was achieved in the current study by selecting participants who represented diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, and major. Using the aforementioned sampling criteria, a dozen potential participants were contacted via email and invited to participate in an interview at the 2017 MAASU conference, and 11 students responded. Then, a 60-minute individual interview was scheduled with each student during the conference.

Table 1 includes a delineation of the pseudonyms, demographic characteristics, institutional types, and selected majors of the final participant sample. As mentioned, diversity was sought in terms of gender, ethnicity, and major. All participants in the final sample identified as cisgender, with women overrepresented in the sample compared with men (there were eight and three participants in these categories, respectively). The sample was ethnically diverse and included Afghan, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Hmong, Korean, Vietnamese, and multiracial Asian Americans. The participants also reported a wide range of chosen majors, including biological systems engineering, comparative culture and politics, education, international relations, psychology, political science, public health, public policy, public management and leadership, and sociology. One participant had not yet decided their major.

With regard to age, one participant was 23 years old, and all other interviewees were between 19 and 21. Most participants reported combined parental income between $40,000 and $60,000, while two participants reported higher and one participant reported lower parental income. All students attended public predominantly White four-year research universities.

Table 1. Participant Demographics





Parental Income




Cis Woman

Chinese American


$40,001 to $50,000


International Relations


Cis Woman

Bangladeshi American


$50,001 to $60,000


Public Health/Psychology


Cis Man

Chinese American


Over $100,000






Vietnamese American


$40,001 to $50,000


Public Management, Leadership, Policy


Cis Woman

Chinese/Jewish American


$50,001 to $60,000


Biological Systems Engineering


Cis Man

Korean American


$40,001 to $50,000




Cis Woman

Chinese/Vietnamese/Multiracial American


$60,001 to $70,000




Cis Woman

Vietnamese American


$50,001 to $60,000


Comparative Culture and Politics


Cis Man

Afghan American


$90,001 to $100,000


Political Science


Cis Woman

Hmong American


$30,001 to $40,000


Public Policy


Cis Woman

Chinese American


$50,001 to $60,000



Note. Participants’ parental income estimates include total combined income.


Qualitative inquiry is strengthened when the researchers enter the worlds of participants (Charmaz, 2006, 2014). The MAASU annual conference is a space where students reflect on and engage in dialogue about their social justice advocacy with peers and was held at a large rural public research university in the Midwest during the year data were collected for the current examination. Intensive individual interviews served as the primary mode of data collection and were scheduled in classrooms within the campus building in which the conference was held. Intensive interviewing involves facilitating directed conversations for the in-depth exploration of a focal topic (Lofland & Lofland, 1995).

A single semistructured 60-minute face-to-face intensive individual interview was conducted with each participant. All interviews were audio-recorded. Two researchers conducted each interview. A lead interviewer assumed the primary role of asking questions, and both interviewers took notes to document salient themes emerging during the interviews, as well as more comprehensive notes on participants’ responses as a backup to the audio-recorder.

Before the interview, each participant was asked to complete a consent form and one-page demographic profile form. Congruent with a semistructured interview approach, interviews began with questions designed to elicit participants’ stories about how they became committed to social justice. A list of interview questions is included in Appendix A. The interview protocol included questions such as the following: Can you tell us a little bit about how you engage in social justice? And, can you tell us how you came to engage in social justice work? Are there ways that your background has shaped your involvement in social justice?

Interviewers also used theoretical probing, whereby important areas were recorded in interviewer notes, and participants were asked to expand on them. These important areas also informed future interviews and were asked about if future participants did not discuss them organically. For example, the first interviewee mentioned the role of their family in catalyzing their social justice commitments, so researchers asked the participant to expand on the impact of family and noted this as an important area to inquire about in future interviews. Participants were invited to contact the researchers if any new insights emerged after the interview.


All interview transcripts were professionally transcribed and then uploaded into and organized in the Dedoose® platform for analyzing qualitative data. The data were analyzed in three phases (Charmaz, 2006, 2014), which are summarized in Appendix B. In Phase I, line-by-line coding was conducted to identify initial open codes. Specifically, each transcript was reviewed multiple times, and salient ideas, events, and experiences that appeared to serve as catalysts of social justice commitments were coded (e.g., “parent teachings,” “racism,” “sibling role models”). During this phase, field notes were used to supplement the analysis of interview data (Charmaz, 2006, 2014). Specifically, in Phase I, field notes were read in conjunction with the interview transcripts to provide context for interviewee responses. This helped clarify participants’ physical communication and emotions. For example, one participant began pointing with her hands rapidly as she conveyed her passion for addressing social injustices. Such visual and emotional contexts permitted the development of a more holistic understanding of each participant’s responses and meanings conveyed by them.

In Phase II, focused coding was conducted. Through this process, initial codes were used to inductively identify the most salient clusters of codes. Specifically, initial codes that were closely conceptually connected (e.g., “parent teachings,” “sociology courses,” “peer mentoring programs,”) were grouped together to generate the focused codes (e.g., sources of knowledge that foster critical consciousness). The focused codes resulting from this process constituted the overarching themes presented in the Findings section that follows.

In the final phase data analysis, axial coding was used to deductively identify the properties of each theme. During this process, a code report was generated for each focused code (e.g., sources of knowledge that foster critical consciousness), and relevant data were coded to identify the most salient themes in these reports (e.g., “parent socialization,” “culturally relevant curricula,” and “culturally relevant peer networks”). These properties identified through the axial coding process are congruent with the subthemes presented in the Findings section.

Throughout the data analysis process, memos were used to capture thoughts, make comparisons, and clarify connections across data points. In Phase I of data analysis, memos were recorded to capture observations of salient codes, initial perceptions of relationships among them, and biases that might be shaping the coding processes. In Phases II and III, the memos recorded in Phase I were used to look for data that deviated from the emerging themes and refine them accordingly. For example, because most of the initial codes related to ongoing environmental threats focused on racism, the focused “threats” code was initially linked to an axial code labeled “systemic racism.” Memos that highlighted a primary bias toward understanding racial dynamics prompted revisiting this code, expanding its scope and labeling it “systemic oppression,” and acknowledging that two participants talked about classism and sexism playing a salient role in shaping their critical agency and commitments to social justice.

Memos were also used to clarify connections among emerging themes. In Phase II, memos were used to draw connections between and among initial codes in order to identify, develop, and define focused codes (Appendix B). In Phase III, memos were also used to draw and clarify relationships between focused codes and their related properties. Throughout the process, memos were a mechanism to draw and clarify the relationships between and among the major themes, critical agency, and social justice commitments shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Factors that catalyze Asian American college students’ critical agency and commitments to social justice



The author identifies as Asian American and grew up in racially diverse, working-class urban area in the Midwest. He also attended a public four-year research university in this region. During his childhood, his family avoided conversations about oppression and social justice. In college, a confluence of factors catalyzed his own commitment to social justice agendas. These catalysts included college courses that centered on social problems, struggles observed in his community, and major national political events (the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the Iraq War). All these influences shaped his decisions to pursue a career in academia and focus his research agenda on issues of equity in education. As a faculty member, he has supported many Asian American student social justice activists and advocates through ethnic studies and education programs. Therefore, these experiences and the core equity values that resulted from them fueled the current research project.

The author identifies as a cisgender heterosexual Okinawan American man and has spent much of his life immersed in racially and ethnically diverse, but predominantly Southeast Asian American, communities in the Midwest and other regions of the nation. Given the significant diversity of the Asian American community, the author acknowledged that his positionality within Asian America and perception of this community might be biased; therefore, he used memos to check his predispositions. His knowledge, for example, of queer and transgender Asian Americans and the experience of Asian American women is limited. Similarly, dominant discourses rarely portray Asian Americans as Muslim, and the author did not know many Asian Americans who openly identified as Muslim growing up. Awareness of these realities informed the process of reflexivity discussed in the following section.


Three primary methods were used to maximize credibility of the findings (Lincoln & Guba, 1986). First, as discussed in detail in previous sections, data from individual interview transcripts, field notes, and memos were triangulated throughout the analysis. This process helped cross-verify and validate emerging understandings from the individual interviews.

Second, member-checks were conducted with participants. An email was sent to each participant, including an invitation to provide feedback on the summary of the findings, which was shared with each participant. To help validate the emergent findings, specific encouragement for participants to point out any areas in which they felt the themes diverged from their experience was included in the email. To maximize the likelihood that participants would feel that the time they took to provide feedback would not go to waste, the message also included a reassurance that participant feedback was heavily valued and would be taken into account in refining the interpretations of their experiences. However, no respondents suggested changes.

Finally, the author engaged in constant reflexivity and actively sought discrepant data throughout the analysis process. Specifically, the author sought data that might have been overlooked to minimize bias toward centering some codes or data and ignoring others. For example, in Phase III, two axial codes related to the models that ignited agency theme (altruistic parents and peer social justice activists and advocates) were initially generated. However, evidence that “sibling role models” were also apparent prompted a realization that these data were ignored in generating the “altruistic parent” axial code and changing it to “altruistic family members.” Throughout the three phases of analysis, evidence that emerging themes were not reflective of some participants’ experiences was also sought. As reflected in the Findings section, while most themes manifested in a majority of narratives, this process led to clarification that some (parental teachings and altruistic parents) only applied to a few participants.

Despite efforts to maximize credibility, originality, and usefulness, the current study has notable limitations that are worthy of consideration. The project only included 11 interviews from undergraduates who participated in the MAASU conference and who were enrolled in predominantly White public four-year universities in the Midwest. Therefore, the findings do not reflect the experiences of Asian American college students who might live in other regions of the nation or be enrolled in other types of postsecondary institutions (e.g., regions and institutions with a high percentage of Asian American students). In addition, the project included single individual interviews and did not follow students over a longer span of time. Such longitudinal approaches might have generated different insights by permitting students to reflect on focal topics over a longer period and clarify their views based on these reflections.


The model in Figure 1 summarizes major themes that emerged from the analysis and relationships among them. The model shows that participants’ critical agency was central to cultivating their commitments to social justice during college. The critical agency that interview participants developed consisted of a consciousness of the ways in which systemic injustices operate, a sense of urgency to address these injustices, and the agency to have an impact through such work. Jacklyn discussed her process of embracing her own critical agency:

I don’t know because, growing up, I was very meek. I was shy and I was just like the quiet little Asian girl that didn’t do anything. I just sat in a corner, and I read. I just started to become aware and I started to notice everything that happened around me. And, I saw that like no one would stand up for these people, and I decided that I was going to be the person who was going to make the change. I was going to be the person that was going to stand up for these people. Because I didn’t like seeing people be discriminated against or crying or being alone, so I just reached out and I began.

Aligned with the definition of critical agency offered in previous sections, Jacklyn described how her awareness of systemic violence and the pain that it causes led her to feel a sense of urgency and develop the perspective that she can and must act to address them.

The model in Figure 1 also conveys that three key contextual factors fostered students’ critical agency: sources of knowledge that promoted collective critical consciousness, environmental threats that sparked a sense of urgency, and models of critical agency that fostered empowerment among interview participants. In the following sections, these three contextual factors are discussed in depth.


One factor that shaped participants’ critical agency and, ultimately, their commitments to social justice was the sources of knowledge that fostered their critical collective consciousness. Specifically, participants discussed three salient sources of knowledge that allowed them to learn about systemic injustices: parental socialization, culturally relevant curricula and culturally relevant peer networks (e.g., national and campus student organizations, identity-based mentoring programs, and informal identity-based networks).

A few interview participants talked about the ways in which their parents socialized them to develop awareness of systemic oppression from a very early age. As Ronnie explained in the following comments, although participants’ parents were not formally trained to teach about societal injustice, they nevertheless were able to leverage their own experiences, observations, and knowledge to cultivate their children’s awareness:

My parents were both immigrants with only high school educations. So, you know, they opened up their own used-car dealership and the communities that they interacted with, the conversations they had, those people they met were very raw, very open, and very eye-opening for a seven-year-old to hear. You know, my parents never wanted me to be uninformed, never wanted me to be sheltered from the true nature and reality of the hostility that exists within our communities. So, I think from a very young age, I became very aware of just how deep and stark those inequalities are when it comes to how communities of color, how other marginalized groups, are truly treated within our country. And, I think especially as a Muslim within this country, and seeing the discrimination against our community, and the hatred that has come out against us is really what inspired me in the first place to see social justice as a necessary lifestyle to embrace for myself if I wanted to see a better future.

Ronnie’s comments illustrate not only how early exposure to knowledge about systemic injustices can lead to students developing an awareness of systemic racism, but also how such consciousness can contribute to long-term commitments to social justice.

Second, almost all the participants highlighted the central role of culturally relevant curricula in providing opportunities to develop their critical collective consciousness. Students discussed both ethnic studies curricula and courses they took in other disciplines or fields that centered on social systems and problems. Ethnic studies curricula were especially instrumental in helping students gain an awareness of systemic inequities. The salience of ethnic studies courses was partly due to the ways in which they allowed students to connect systemic injustices to their own communities and lives. For example, Shannon discussed the impact of an Asian American history course on her consciousness and explained why it was so important:

I always ask myself, what does it mean for me to be Asian in America? We are refugees or whatever, but how does that relate to what is happening today? I was able to take courses in Asian American history, and that is something that I've never gotten the opportunity to do in high school or elementary school when we talk about history. So, being able to come here and learning about my own history and how Asian Americans were affected in the United States based on their race and things like that was very enlightening to me.

In these remarks, Shannon explained that she was denied opportunities to learn about Asian American history before college, and taking an ethnic studies history course was eye-opening. Expressing frustration, Shannon went on to explain how this experience made her more aware of the ways in which Asian Americans are erased from mainstream history courses and expressed her discontent with the reality that many people will never have the opportunity to learn about Asian American communities’ rich histories in the United States:   

I feel like I was lied to because there is so much that happened. Like it's very important and it made me question, okay who gets to write history? Why are we learning just from a certain perspective? Why is there not more than one narrative that is being shared or taught in high school? For me, that's an issue because history is really focused on Western history and not so much the overall experience. We have to keep in mind that not everyone is able to afford to go to college or college is not for everyone, so they are not going to learn this history.

Also apparent in Shannon’s comments are the ways in which this experience sharpened her critical thinking skills because it prompted her to ask questions about power and knowledge that gets privileged in school curricula.

While participants highlighted the salience of ethnic studies curricula most frequently, some students discussed other courses across disciplines and fields (e.g., history, sociology, public policy) that were important catalysts for their commitments to social justice. Katherine, for example, explained how her sociology courses were important in her cultivating a critical consciousness:

Sociology is like learning about the little hidden systems that keep things the way they are. . . . Studying education with the lens of finding these systems of oppression or privilege, engaging more in dialogue, reading theories, and speaking with my professors and other students, or me sharing my story about how I struggled. . . . So, yeah, learning and being in dialogue in those classes helped a lot.

In these remarks, Katherine also discussed the ways in which her sociology courses provided space and opportunities for her to learn about how systemic oppression and inequities operate.

Finally, participants discussed the important role of peer networks in raising their critical consciousness. Interviewees mentioned a wide range of peer networks, including regional associations (e.g., MAASU), campus student organizations, peer mentoring programs, and informal peer networks. For example, Katherine discussed how her peer networks allowed her to learn about her cultural communities, which also sparked her curiosity in learning about the complexities of social movements:

Learning about Vietnamese American issues and the struggle of my parents and comparing that with the larger story of Asian Americans here. I’m starting to delve a little bit more into Southeast Asian American issues. . . . Trying to learn more about Vietnamese American issues as they relate to the larger Asian American community has made me a little bit more driven to find out and closely analyze social movements, like how the feminist movement was largely White wealthier women at the very beginning and then they slowly made the move towards focusing on women of color who are working class. So, me trying to see how, within movements, there may be a little bit of problems or blindness within their own community.

Katherine’s remarks underscore the importance of peer networks that center conversations on Asian American issues in her developing commitments to social justice. Given that most of the participants did not have opportunities to learn about Asian American history, communities, or issues before entering college, they were denied the opportunity to cultivate their collective Asian American identity and consciousness. In addition, by noting the value of learning about intersectionality in feminist movements and her interest in learning how Southeast Asian Americans fit into Asian America, she underscores the importance of learning the complexity of social issues, racial communities, and social movements. However, these peer networks played a particularly salient role in their development of participants’ critical agency. For instance, Bradley described how these realities manifested in his own life through a peer mentoring program on his respective campus:

So, I was a mentee my first year. I’ve grown with the program. It has definitely really allowed me to engage more with the Asian American community and engage more in social justice. Prior to that, you know I’m a Chinese adoptee, and my parents are both Caucasian, so I never felt too connected with an Asian identity or a Chinese identity. I was just never raised with that kind of awareness . . . I definitely tried to engage more with that, but it wasn’t until this year that I really started to connect my personal history with the history of Asian Americans and aligning myself with more of a Pan-Asian identity that I have more focus on Asian Americans and conversations surrounding race.

Participants also described how their access to these sources of knowledge helped them cultivate the capacities to facilitate their peers’ and their own learning about social injustices. For example, Ronnie noted how he enjoys facilitating critical dialogues and learning about social injustices among his friendship groups:

So, a lot of what I like to do with my friends is, when we meet together, usually we’re all on our computers and we’re scrolling through the news, so I’ll highlight different articles that I see that relate to injustice, and I’ll start a discussion about that issue, what different people’s perspectives are on it, and the effect that issue has, whether it’s as simple as one microaggression, or whether it’s as large as something as like the racist Pepsi ad that came out this weekend. You know, so just maintaining that consistent discourse and critically analyzing the injustices and the issues that we see in our daily lives is something that I like to do.

Therefore, participants not only highlighted their peers as critical collaborators in social justice activism and advocacy, but also underscored the importance of the ways in which students can help each other cultivate critical collective consciousness.


In addition to sources of knowledge that foster critical consciousness, participants highlighted environmental threats that sparked a sense of urgency as important catalysts in their development of critical agency. This theme consisted of three main elements: experiences with ongoing systemic oppression, critical national political events that exacerbated existing systemic injustices, and the inability of institutions to sufficiently respond to and address these environmental threats.

First, interview participants highlighted systemic oppression as one catalyst of their cultivation of critical agency. Two participants talked about experiences with class inequities and sexual assault, while almost all participants emphasized systemic racism as a primary pervasive environmental threat. Most participants discussed how racism was something that they experienced throughout their lives and encountered normally in college. Aurona described her experiences coming to the United States amid intensified Islamophobia in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001:

When I came over, I faced some discrimination right off the bat and, of course, I wasn't really aware of this growing up. But, 9/11 had happened and that kind of really sparked a lot of things . . . 9/11 it sparked a lot of fear in my family. . . . When we came over, we faced a lot of discrimination. Every airport we were stopped at. And then, I was separated from my mother and I was stripped down and patted. For a four-year-old child, this is very daunting and scary. . . . So, I became extremely recluse, extremely quiet, introverted, and very scared. I had held this . . . a lot of fright.

Interviewees also discussed the ongoing racism that they experienced when they entered college. For example, visibly disappointed, Shannon described her experience being an Asian American on her campus:

When I came in as a freshman, there was this app called Yik-Yak. I don't know if it's around anymore but, basically, it's an app where people can submit anonymously. And, how it works is that anybody around you, like if you're in the same location area, those are the posts that you see. So, on our campus, there was a lot of “I hate all these Asians” comments and just a lot of racist things against Asian people. Oh, this Asian girl ate my cat or just those typical things. Also, during elections or whatever and people registering to vote, I noticed people would avoid me because they probably think I'm an international student and often times I feel like I get mistaken for an international student, and that's an issue to me because it shows that people don't really see Asians as people here. We'll always be seen as foreigners. But, in reality, we've been here for centuries. It's sad. People still look at us and think we're all international students.

Shannon’s comments underscore the ways in which many participants encountered diverse forms of daily racism at their respective institutions, from normalized racist remarks on social media to stereotyping on the physical campus.

Second, participants discussed how systemic racism existed before 2016, but they also described how political events during that year exacerbated these environmental threats. Specifically, interviewees highlighted that the election of Donald Trump and the administration’s subsequent actions led to enhanced threats, which ultimately contributed to their sense of urgency to address systemic injustices. Eva described how they experienced an increased collective sense of urgency after the election five months earlier:

After Donald Trump was elected to the presidential seat or whatever, there was kind of a debrief. It actually garnered a lot of support—the post-election meeting. People from all over came to the multicultural center . . . and it was a really big way of kind of showing the solidarity that was actually on our campus. Something that I have personally have never seen before just in my experience and other people weren’t expecting.

It was approximately two months before data collection that Trump was inaugurated as president, and he signed the immigration ban shortly thereafter. Several participants discussed this political context and its consequent urgency as a salient catalyst for their commitment to social justice. After the immigration ban was implemented, stories of lives upended by the ban were shared via news and social media outlets. Allison described her reactions to the story of a girl who was unable to enter the United States to receive a necessary heart surgery because of the ban:

The immigration ban—I just thought it was so unfair. It just goes back to the racism. You categorize a whole group of people just because of previous experiences. . . . There was actually this one girl. She was like one or two years old, but she needed heart surgery. They couldn’t do it in her country—one of the seven countries that’s banned.

Allison went on to discuss the ways in which advocates in government fought for and received a waiver so that the girl could enter the country and receive the lifesaving surgery:

She ended up getting surgery in New York. I thought that was great because, when we put these policies out that are against a whole group of people, you forget the people that are hurt. Those people that are in poverty and those people in certain conditions. . . . So, it’s just upsetting that we do these things. Yes, I know that we’re trying to protect our country from terrorism. . . . But, it doesn’t just prevent those people from entering. It also prevents the people who are in need.

In sharing the story about how the immigration ban almost led to the death of an infant child, Alison underscored the seriousness of the national sociopolitical context of the time and its potentially devastating consequences.

Participants also linked larger systems and policies that perpetuate such violence to people in their personal lives and their own lives. Jacklyn, who is a multiracial Chinese and Jewish American student, became impassioned as she discussed the ways in which the government’s actions fueled racism targeted toward one of her refugee friends from Syria:

I was like, “Why are you guys being so mean to her for just being from this place and trying to better herself by coming to this country?” And, she’s a great person. She like volunteers. She does like a lot of leadership activities. And, people would beat her down just because from where she’s from. And it just . . . peeved me. It just sparked in me. . .

Jacklyn went on to discuss the ways in which the xenophobia also negatively affected her own community and life, as systemic prejudice and discrimination made it dangerous for her to teach at her local synagogue:

So, I’m also Jewish on top of being Asian American. And, the synagogue I work for—I teach art there and help children search for what religion means to them through art—so, sometimes we cannot go there because we get threats from people who are ignorant about stuff, and it peeved me. Things like that that are actually very big just sparked this motivation in me to just stand up and speak out.

These broader threats also shaped the environments on college campuses and exhibited an impact on participants’ lives. Finally, students discussed how their institutions were unable or unwilling to address these systemic threats. As she sighed and made the following remarks, Phuong discussed the increases in hate crimes at her university after the presidential election and the campus president’s response:

Our current president is in a difficult position. Sometimes, she comes off as she doesn’t care for the students, especially the marginalized students. . . . The university’s donors are typically Republicans, so she has to play it safe. An example would be, after Trump was elected, there were incidences of hate crime on campus. She didn’t write a letter that said, “I don’t approve. We can’t accept this behavior.” She didn’t do that.

Thus, these social and political threats in the environment sparked an urgency for students to advocate social justice and eventually led them to get involved in activism and advocacy work. For example, participants discussed how such urgency led them to pursue leadership positions that would permit them to advocate for equity, engage in campus protests, and change their educational goals to pursue futures that would allow them to positively impact society. Shannon discussed this impact:

So, I changed my major to public policy because that was more me, and I wanted to actually learn about things that were important to me. So, sophomore year was also the year I saw that there was a lack of leadership in Asian American and Pacific Islander student organization. There were so many things that were happening that were affecting the Asian community. I know so many students on campus who feel a sense of hostility against them, as Asian American students . . . I felt like I needed to change my major.

For Shannon, environmental threats and her observation of complacent leadership on campus sparked a sense of urgency that eventually compelled her to change her major from science to public policy so she could leverage her education and career to address systemic injustices.


A third catalyst of critical agency and eventual commitments to social justice among participants were models that ignited agency. These role models included altruistic family members and peer social justice activists and advocates who demonstrated an unwavering commitment to social justice agendas. In doing so, these role models showed the interview participants the possibility and value of making a difference and helped them see their own agency to have a positive impact on the world.

Several interview participants credited their family members, including parents and siblings, with modeling how people can live their life in ways that address salient systemic injustices. In the following response, for example, Jacklyn discussed how her parents’ commitment to having a positive impact on society had a profound influence on her own ability to cultivate her sense of agency to have a positive impact:

My father was the one that really defined who I am today, and my mother was a very outspoken person too. She grew up saving animals and dogs of all sorts, and so that kind of grew on me too. My dad helped people. My mother helped animals. So, it just kind of turned into me helping everyone that I see and everything that I see and shaping my views. . . . So, my parents are very passionate too. They didn’t force it upon me but they just subtly like said things when I was younger. And, they didn’t tell me to do any of this stuff, but I just grew up and I believed that doing what was right was right.

Jacklyn’s comments highlight the ways in which her parental role models shaped her own sense of agency. While she did not describe her parents as social justice activists, she talked at length about the ways in which they modeled how to help those in need. These lessons translated into Jacklyn’s belief that helping others was important and instilled in her that she could do so.

In addition to parents, siblings played a salient role in some participants’ experiences. In the following comments, Ronnie described the impact of his siblings on his decisions to engage in social justice work. In doing so, he underscored the ways in which his sisters had espoused commitments to social justice since he was very young and modeled how one could be involved for advocating for racially minoritized communities on a national level:

I mentioned my family a little bit, but I think more so than my parents, I think my sisters were a source of inspiration and support that I’ve relied on. They both actually attended the university and, through their involvement here, they both became very active within advocacy for the Black American community. My oldest sister actually worked for the NAACP for a few years after graduating. So, you know, it was really her engagement through that community that was foreign to her that really encouraged me, even though I met obstacles fitting into the Asian American community. . . . You know, they set the precedent for me . . . I was very young when they came into college and got involved in social justice and such. So, you know, I grew up being enriched with their experiences when they would come home and tell me about the stories that they had collected, the memories that they had created and such. So, growing up with that being a part of my experience was something that certainly motivated me to see this as something that I wanted to be a part of as well.

Important to Ronnie’s story is that he is Afghan. He talked about how, because people of Middle Eastern descent are often not centered in Asian American conversations and sometimes not racially categorized as Asian American by public institutions, he did not initially feel fully accepted within the Asian American community. However, he pointed to his sisters’ modeling as a source of inspiration that allowed him to persist, develop relationships and trust, and cultivate belonging in the community. When asked to elaborate, he explained that this motivation and his eventual persistence were integral to cultivating a sense of agency and capacity to advocate for racial equity:

It encouraged me to see that this is a space that I need to be a part of regardless of what a few people may say. I still need to push forward regardless of that. And so, looking at their own experiences working with communities beside their own is something that continues to push me forward. I may get disheartened one day, but a conversation with them about an experience that they have had rejuvenates me the next day.

In addition to discussing family members who modeled unwavering commitments to social justice, participants discussed peers who served as salient role models. Jacob talked about one of his older friends from high school whom he admired for his commitments to social justice when he went to college:

I think it’s mostly just because a lot of my friends from high school. . . . After going to college and learning a lot of new ideas, I’ve talked a lot to my friends in high school about it, and one of my friends from high school actually went here, and then he did a lot of social justice. There’s a minor where it’s basically a social justice minor. He did that.

Jacob went on to highlight an Alternative Spring Break trip during which he met more peers who inspired him through their strong passion for social justice:

Two years ago, I went on an Alternative Spring Break trip, and a lot of people who are really passionate about social justice go on those trips. I think that's the first time I really heard the term “social justice” and really talked to people about it. So, I think that might've been one of the biggest triggers. It really pushed me to actually talk about social justice because that was the first time that I had ever been around a ton of people that were really assertive about it.

Jacob’s comments suggest that being immersed in a space and group in which conversations about social justice were normalized had a significant impact. Similarly, Aurona underscored the inspiration that she found in knowing student leaders who served as her mentors and were committed to social justice on her campus:

Most of my support comes either internally or from the people I work with, from the office of diversity and inclusion staff and the disability resources staff. The people that I work with are my mentors. You know? And, even the students that I see in the community, the Asian Pacific Islander students and students from all the other communities, the students in the Black Student Association. . . . My encouragement to go on comes from them. You know? Because when they’re doing something great, I’m like, “Wow. They’re amazing.” That moves me to go further. You know?

In these comments, Aurona explained that these models motivated her to remain committed to social justice agendas and work hard to advance them. Aurona also highlighted that educators who advocated social justice on her campus served as key role models. However, while faculty members were instrumental in generating and offering curricula that catalyzed students’ critical collective consciousness, as mentioned earlier, Aurona was the only participant who underscored the role of educators in modeling social justice work. In sum, interview participants identified a diverse range of social justice models in their personal and college lives that were instrumental in their cultivating a sense of agency.


At least four major conclusions can be drawn from the current investigation. First, the current analysis extends existing knowledge about critical agency. Previous studies highlighted the ways in which college educators leverage critical agency to resist oppression and seek to transform their campus structures (Baez, 2000a, 2000b; Kiyama et al., 2012). The current study extends this prior knowledge by demonstrating that critical agency is also salient in Asian American students developing commitments to engage in social justice agendas. In addition, this analysis sheds some additional light on the complexity of critical agency and the multiple elements that comprise it. For example, existing studies highlight that critical collective consciousness and agency are important elements of critical agency (Baez, 2000a, 2000b; Freire, 2018; Kiyama et al., 2012; Solórzano & Bernal, 2001). The current inquiry’s findings add to this literature by providing some evidence that, for some Asian American students, critical agency also encompasses a sense of urgency to embrace their agency to address systemic problems. In other words, the current analysis provides some indication that critical collective consciousness, the urgency to address existing threats, and agency might all be important in Asian American students developing social justice commitments.

Second, the current findings might provide some clarity to help make sense of conflicting findings in existing literature regarding how people become activists. Some previous studies have found that triggering events spark engagement in activism (Han, 2009; Phoenix & Arora, 2018; Warren, 2010), while other inquiries suggest that individuals’ interactions with their surrounding environment over a longer period is what leads them to engage in social justice (Connor, 2019; Museus et al., 2012; Ryoo & Ho, 2013). The current findings suggest that both of these factors might be important. With regard to triggering events, for participants in the current study, the increased racialized political threats in their environment did influence their decisions to commit to social justice. However, these threats converged with students’ existing awareness of ongoing systemic injustices in society and continuing access to sources of knowledge that allowed them to cultivate critical consciousness and their connections to agents who modeled social justice. Therefore, the question might not be whether triggering events or long-term engagement with sources of knowledge that cultivate critical collective consciousness and agency are the primary catalyst. Instead, sources of knowledge about systemic injustices and role models of agency might prepare and prime individuals to effectively respond when they do encounter systemic threats that must be urgently met.

Third, the current findings extend existing literature on the role of systemic oppression and Asian American students’ lived realities. Prior research demonstrates that systemic oppression shapes Asian American students’ experiences in college (Chou & Feagin, 2008; Museus & Park, 2015; Yi et al., 2020). The model minority myth can lead to their exclusion and marginalization on their respective campuses (Yi & Museus, 2015), and daily encounters with racial stereotypes, epithets, and profiling negatively impact their experiences in college (Chou & Feagin, 2008; Museus & Park, 2015). The current study adds to this literature by showing that experiencing systemic violence, if coupled with access to sources of knowledge that cultivate critical consciousness, can also lead Asian American students to develop critical agency.

Fourth, the current analysis adds to knowledge about the role of key people in Asian Americans’ cultivation of commitments to social justice. With regard to family, there is some indication that Asian American parents might pressure their children to pursue education pathways that are less likely to align with social justice goals (Museus, 2013). This research also indicates that Asian American students who explain their desire to pursue majors and careers that allow them to have a positive impact on society can alleviate this pressure and gain greater parental support. The current analysis adds to this prior research by providing some initial evidence that Asian American parents can also catalyze students’ critical agency and social justice commitments through serving as a source of knowledge that increases students’ awareness about social injustices and modeling how to contribute to a more just world. In the current study, siblings served the latter modeling purpose as well. Therefore, the current findings also add to existing literature by underscoring the potential role that siblings play in shaping Asian American students’ experiences in general, and their social justice commitments specifically.

Prior scholarship also suggests that educator and peer networks cultivate and maintain ethnic studies programs and ethnic student organizations that provide space for Asian American students to develop connections to their racial communities and identities, and, ultimately, their critical consciousness (Kiang, 2009; Museus, 2008; Museus et al., 2012, 2016, 2018; Nguyen et al., 2018; Osajima, 2007; Ryoo & Ho, 2013; Wang et al., in press). The current study extends prior research by showing that non–ethnic studies curricula (e.g., sociology and public policy courses) and peer networks that center social injustices also help foster critical consciousness that leads to social justice commitments among some Asian Americans. Moreover, the findings demonstrate that peers can serve an additional function by serving as role models who help cultivate these students’ social justice commitments.


The current investigation has several implications for future research and practice. With regard to future scholarly research, the current study highlights the need for more empirical research on the role of critical agency in the experiences of college students and offers some useful tools to advance such an agenda. The current study was limited in scope; it included only 11 students who were enrolled in public four-year predominantly White institutions in the Midwest and participated in a regional Asian American student leadership conference. To provide a richer understanding of Asian American students’ critical agency and social justice commitments, researchers can use the model presented herein as a conceptual framework to conduct a more expansive study that includes a larger number of interviewees from various types of colleges and universities (e.g., different institutional types with both low and high percentages of Asian American students) across diverse geographic contexts (e.g., including regions with both smaller and larger Asian American communities) over a longer time span. Such larger longitudinal studies could also collect a more diverse array of evidence (e.g., observations of activities and documents related to students’ social justice trajectories). Future research of this nature could provide more comprehensive understandings of Asian American students’ social justice commitments, capturing any insights that might be outside the scope of the current analysis and shedding light on how these realties vary across campus and regional contexts.

With regard to practice, college educators might consider the opportunities presented by increased threats in the political environment. When Asian American students feel increased threats in the climate, they might be more likely to feel a sense of urgency. Such times might present an opportunity for educators to leverage that urgency and combine it with spaces that cultivate critical collective consciousness and expose students to social justice role models in order to facilitate Asian American students’ development of agency and breaking out of complacency.

In addition, college educators might want to be mindful of the fact that creating spaces for students to cultivate critical collective consciousness and connect with social justice role models is not necessarily futile, even if these spaces do not seem to generate immediate results. These efforts might be useful in fostering students’ agentic capacity, or capacity to embrace their agency when they witness significant and heightened political threats in their environment.

While Asian Americans are often misunderstood as model minorities who are not affected by systemic oppression (Museus & Kiang, 2009), many Asian American college students are engaged in advancing social justice agendas. Given that systemic oppression leads to a wide range of negative consequences (Feagin, 2013; Feagin & Bennefield, 2014; Payne, 2005; Wray-Lake & Hart, 2012), it is important that higher education researchers, policy makers, and practitioners better understand how to support Asian American students in cultivating social justice commitments. As this study shows, it might be especially important that college educators provide space and opportunities for Asian American students to understand the urgency of addressing systemic violence, develop critical collective consciousness, and see models of embracing agency so that they are more likely to commit to eradicating systemic violence.


The author would like to give special thanks to Jeffrey Grim, Kayla Kosaki, Nue Lee, Rachelle Martinez, Vanessa Na, Ngoc Phan, and Marie Ting for helping design and collect data for this study. He would also like to thank the Kellogg Foundation for their generous support of this project.


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Interview Questions


Can you tell us a little bit about how you engage in social justice?


And, can you tell us how you came to engage in social justice work?


Are there other things that they do that are particularly helpful or supportive or inspiring in doing this work?


When you think about your progress in social justice work, are there things that you felt inhibited it? And, do you want to share how you navigated those situations and overcome them?


Are there ways that your background has shaped your involvement in social justice?


How, if at all, does racism shape the experiences of Asian American leaders and the community in general?


Do you have support systems that we haven’t talked about as an Asian American leader that help you do the work? Can you tell us about them?


There’s a lot going on in the national context. How, if at all, has that affected your involvement in social justice work?


How, if at all, has the local community played a role in your work in positive or negative ways? Any challenges that have emerged from the local context—community context?


How, if at all, has your campus supported the social justice work that you’re doing? Is there anything you want to say about challenges that exist at or created by the university?


List of Codes and Data Reduction Details


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 1, 2021, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23553, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 12:36:16 AM

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About the Author
  • Samuel D. Museus
    University of California, San Diego
    SAMUEL D. MUSEUS, Ph.D., is professor of education studies at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and founding director of the National Institute for Transformation and Equity (NITE). He has produced over 300 publications and conference presentations focused on diversity and equity, social movements and activism, and transforming systems to be more inclusive and equitable. He has produced 10 books, including Creating Campus Cultures: Fostering Success Among Racially Diverse Student Populations and Racism and Racial Equity in Higher Education.
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