He was an “A” student but didn’t have perfect college entrance exam scores. Nor was he captain of his high school debate team.

In fact, Thang Diep, a Vietnamese American who arrived as a refugee in Los Angeles from Ho Chi Minh City when he was 8, had such a tough time learning English that his fifth grade teacher opted for an extreme solution.

He taught Thang to grip a pencil between his teeth as he tried to pronounce English words. “When you take the pencil out you can enunciate a lot better,” Thang recalled to Asia Times in an interview. “The strain of moving your tongue with the pencil in your mouth makes you put more emphasis on pronouncing words correctly.” 

“It worked,” Thang said of his breakthrough. The experience was a defining moment that provided the grit for more achievements — both personal and academic. All this ultimately paid off two years ago when he was accepted as a freshman to Harvard University’s Class of 2019 with a full scholarship.

“I applied on a whim, I didn’t think I would get in,” Thang said, remembering his shock when he was admitted to the 381-year-old institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Thang’s story offers insights into the use of “diversity” as a factor in college acceptances at a time when Harvard and other top universities in the US are under fire for allegedly discriminating against Asian Americans in the admissions process. 

The legal point focuses on whether these schools hold Asian Americans to a higher standard than African Americans, Hispanics and whites. The issue has become the subject of two separate legal actions — one by Asian American groups, the other by conservative activists.

“Holistic admissions and affirmative action are important,” said Thang, now in his junior year at Harvard. He is majoring in neurobiology with a secondary field in global health and wants to be a pediatrician.

What made him different

How did Thang fall into the “diverse” category and what especially qualified him for Harvard?

Like other Asian American students, he veered toward science and math and would often study until 3 and 4 am. He also forced himself to compete in school spelling bees when local kids mocked his accent.

He was raised in a lower middle-class family and has one sister. His father made a living in the import-export business; his mother worked for a local travel agency before becoming a full-time mom.

But Thang also learned to cope in unique ways with other issues in the diverse San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles where his family put down roots and which was largely composed of Mexicans, Vietnamese and Filipinos.

When some Latinos in his heavily Hispanic neighborhood called him “chinito” (Spanish for “little Chinese boy”) it inspired him to forge an unusually strong sense of self, both as an American of Vietnamese ancestry and as someone who could transcend prejudice with compassion and a sense of morality. He volunteered to do hospital work into the late evenings with skid row residents in LA — many of whom were Hispanic or African American. He showed that he could rise above petty harassment from other minority groups to do the right thing.

“I learned not to get angry and to understand why there was such misperceptions in Asian identities,” Thang said. “It’s not that I got over it. It’s that I’m more understanding of other people when they do that.”

Thang’s willingness to assert his identity faced a bigger test when he “came out” in high school after realizing he was gay.

“The experience showed me that it could be a positive to show people who I am,” said Thang, who made the decision after participating in school discussion groups and talking the matter over with friends.

Harvard allows students to access their college files, including admissions data, as part of university policy. When Thang did this he found an evaluation by the admissions officer who reviewed his application.

Not all Asians the same

It noted that Thang had significantly lower college board scores than other Asian Americans at Harvard. His score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT was in the 2060s, below a perfect score of 2300 notched by many of his ethnic peers.

But Harvard’s “holistic” review also looked closely at the personal essay that accompanied his application. It concluded that he was a capable individual with a strong sense of self and morality. It further predicted that he would shine and make a significant contribution to Harvard’s educational environment.

“They said I had a strong identity, a good understanding of who I was,” Thang said, noting that Harvard was impressed with his struggles with English and coming to terms with his sexuality and Vietnamese identity. “They were also interested in my service to the community, sense of social justice and interest in helping other people,” Thang added.

He also cautions against painting all Asian American college applicants with the same brush. Vietnamese and Filipinos in the US, according to Thang, typically face higher educational hurdles than Chinese and other Asian groups due to the scars left on their cultures by Western colonialism. “The Southeast Asian experience is vastly different from the East Asian experience. We were more historically oppressed than other groups,” Thang asserted.

Indeed, some studies show that Vietnamese Americans only have a college degree attainment rate of 20%, with Laotians, Cambodians, and Khmer coming in at less than 10%.

A final note to Thang’s saga is that a majority of Harvard’s incoming class this year is nonwhite for the first time in its nearly four centuries as an institution of higher learning. The Boston Globe says that 50.8% of the incoming freshmen class in 2017 are from minority groups, up from 47.3% in 2016.

Thang will join a group of Harvard students with “special status” before the courts who plan to defend the pro-diversity side of the debate in upcoming legal battles over Harvard’s admissions policy.

“It’s important to understand what Harvard is doing in admissions,”
 Thang said.