Message to Asian Parents

Growing up I was told that Asian kids are just smarter.  This stereotype seemed to be buffeted by all the hyper-accomplished Asian students with the perfect GPAs and mix of extracurriculars (BTW I was kind of just average or above-average or so all around). Indeed, Asians tend to be over-represented in institutes of higher learning and highly technical fields.   However, I’ve never seen any data that shows that Asians are any smarter than people originating from other continents.

Asian students do have a secret weapon though: their parents. It’s maybe not so much the parents per se as the culture. At least speaking for the Chinese American culture, it was simply a given that we’d go to college, and probably graduate school. We’d have a sport, learn Chinese, and play a musical instrument. Being cool wasn’t important, but your GPA was. Indeed, some of my Chinese American childhood friends went on to that Ivy League school and are literally world-famous.

For some of us, that formula and pathway works perfectly well; we’re 100% suited and passionate about a career in a STEM discipline, or maybe law. For the others of us, well, too bad.

Asian parents, I know you want the best for your children and economic security is paramount. I ask you, though, to weigh the degree of economic security (do they really need to make in the high 6-figures to be secure?) against the psychological cost of doing a job you don’t love. For me the toll was psychological, physical, and relational. My body and life were shutting down because I couldn’t keep doing that job.

Parents, I’m not saying that you encourage your kids to throw caution to the wind and hop a bus to LA in hopes of being the next “It” girl.   What I am saying is that maybe our young people should be encouraged to pursue that passion and dream but have a reasonable Plan B ready to go if that dream doesn’t work out, preferably one that allows them to pursue that passion at least as a hobby.

I didn’t tell you earlier that one of my Ivy League Chinese American friends ended up pursuing a non-traditional path (non-doctor/lawyer/engineer) and became world famous anyway. Many of the parents I know would not have supported that path, but fortunately for him, his did. In other words, it is possible to follow your heart and dreams and achieve that economic security. Had he pursued engineering, he might be secure enough, but would he be as happy or successful?

I know from my own experience that pursuing my Plan A (which temporally came to me in late life) not only means that I’m passionate about my job, but that work enriches my personal life and wellbeing too. And that’s worth all the money in the world.

Oh, The Academic Life!

Really, I do love my job.   It’s interesting, challenging and I feel I have a positive impact on others. And don’t forget the 10 hour work weeks accompanied by the 6 figure salary.

Right. And I have a bridge in Alaska I want to sell you.

This does seem to be the impression by much of the public regarding the life of an academic.   That impression seems to have come from articles written by some of our own, so clearly, this luxurious and entitled lifestyle seems to be true for some of us. Indeed, it’s possible that a tenured professor can pretty much “coast” if he or she wishes, doing only the absolute minimum. While that may not be as easy to do in the private or government sector, we also all know people who are actively disengaged: they are unmotivated and actually contemptuous of the organization and the efforts of the people within. Higher ed is no different, and this situation is only further aggravated when that disengaged person cannot be fired and happens to be able to write eloquent pieces about how we’re fleecing the public.

I have worked in higher ed for the last 22 years, and I have known actively disengaged, tenured professors but they’re all gone (though I’m sure they still exist as they do in every industry). Everyone I know is working hard to do the best possible job they can. Even someone who “only” teaches 9 hours per week has these hidden duties:

  1. Preparation – A good teacher refreshes their material each year, whether:

A) The course content

B) Teaching method

C) Teaching technology

D) More than one of the above

Some of my course content stays pretty constant, but others are changing constantly.

  1. Assessment – Someone has to grade the darn assignments, right? Even disengaged faculty have to do grading else an uprising from the students. Usually we have teaching assistants helping out with the larger courses. For example, our Pharmacy program has 140 students per class, so this is where our assistants are invaluable. If you have assistants, they have to also be supervised and managed, so that’s not necessarily a cake-walk either.
  2. Course and student management –   Those syllabi, assignments and grades don’t get calculated and posted on their own, and sometimes students actually want to talk to the professor. When your class is 140, this can get demanding.
  3. Curriculum/program development and management – These courses are part of a larger curriculum and program. The demands for course, curriculum and program assessment and approval have been steadily increasing to the point I feels sometimes we spend just as much time assessing ourselves as we do our students. Any change to curriculum has to be approved by the respective curriculum committee, then approved by a university committee staffed by – you guessed it – faculty. And if you want to create a new program? It’s a huge effort mired in bureaucracy/oversight.
  4. Student affairs – This is a huge area that involves admissions, promotion, recruiting, student academic and conduct issues, extracurricular activities, career advising, graduation, and student development including mentoring and academic/professional advising. Though staff do much of the thankless work, guess who also needs to be involved, oftentimes in leadership roles? Yes, you got it.
  5. Faculty affairs – There’s this whole contingent on campus that have their own needs, darn it! Those needs are met by faculty and administration as well since, inexplicably, the students won’t do it for us. For some reason, we need management, recruiting, training, development, promotion and retention, and we have this other little thing called….
  6. Research and scholarly activity – Learning and discovery go hand in hand. Teachers are only as good as the material they learn and discover, which is the essence of research and scholarship. I suppose there are some that have it pretty easy – they can pretty much just turn out a book or two by working a couple of hours per day. After all, anyone can pretty much get a publisher to invest thousands on printing a book these days, right? And oh, self-published books just don’t count in academia, no offense to those who have self-published. It’s just how it is here.
  7. Graduate education – Masters and doctoral programs may not have as much classroom time or visibility as an undergraduate program. However, these students are much like scientific apprentices. They learn at the side of the faculty how to be the next generation of scholars. This is a time-intensive process as you can imagine, as transitioning from an undergraduate to an independent-thinking scientist takes a lot of time and effort by the faculty (and the student).
  8. Miscellaneous campus activities – We have this secret responsibility on campus, which is called service. For our clinical faculty, that service means their medical, pharmacy or nursing practice. Again, these faculty have their own form of professional upkeep and innovation in order to stay competent and leaders in their field. We also are required to participate in student and faculty affairs-related service as many of those tasks must have faculty involvement and often leadership. Other priorities on campus such as diversity and inclusion, library, staff and administrator search committees, strategic planning, fundraising, technology, campus safety, and culture and climate issues also require faculty participation, oversight, attention, and often leadership. This only accounts for service within the university. Most of us are also members of professional organizations which we help lead and run.

Most faculty do all of this working far more than 40 hours per week. Some are only getting paid 9 months per year. Yeah, those faculty lounging by the pool in the summer are not getting paid. How would you like a job that refuses to pay you 3 months per year? Many of those faculty are still working during the summer, even without pay, on their research. What you do not see is them leaving the pool to go work on the computer all night, without compensation.

And with all this, most faculty make far less than their counterparts in the private sector.   My salary, if I were working in industry for these past 20 years, would probably be at least 50% higher by now. I don’t do this job because I can lounge by the pool (though I do have the option of working by the pool sometimes) but because I love the flexibility of the job, the challenge of doing research and scholarship, and the opportunity to really make an impact on the lives of young people or our profession.

If you compare us to for-profit colleges, we provide the education along with research/scholarship and a vibrant campus culture for the same or lower cost as the for-profit schools. So I think we’re doing pretty well.

I’m not asking that you view us as saints or martyrs. We’re not. We work hard doing the job we love and feel privileged to do. We make a contribution to society that is often ignored or misaligned until an amazing scientific discovery or technological advance emanates. At that point, no one says, “oh, I’m glad we’re investing in higher ed.” That discovery does not come out of a vacuum. It comes because of society’s investment in knowledge and discovery. Isn’t that what we’re here to do and enable?

Students Teach the Teacher

We sample Cuban food

We sample Cuban food

In study after study, positive psychology shows us that healthy, positive relationships are essential to our well-being. Relationships enable success, productivity, and the creation of positive emotions such as connection and love. In addition, all the success in the world is meaningless if you have no one to share it with. Thus, relationships also provide the foundation for meaning in our lives.

I have always felt particularly blessed for the friends and family in my life. The belief that love is synergistic, enhancing surrounding relationships, rather than a zero-sum game allows me to expand my circle rather than limiting it to a few. As a result, I feel rich in the most important way possible.

The idea of (platonic) love and relationships in the context of teaching has been an evolution for me as I’ve progressed from classroom teacher and advisor to more of a mentor/trainer/coach.   The latter has allowed me to explore anything and everything often in depth with the students, and in the process transforms the relationship from teacher-student to fellow travelers. The advantage of this co-education with post-baccalaureate learners is that we truly can engage on a peer level, which may not be available with younger students.

Meditation at Maymont

Meditation at Maymont

Earlier this week, we completed our summer outings series for students who have participated in our student development class, part of a larger program called VCU BEST. The idea behind VCU BEST is that we strive to educate the “rest” of the student beyond the academic portion of the brain. As such, we gather each summer for optional outings designed to explore our humanity and connection to each other and the larger world: a nature walk, comedy club, meditation, yoga, ethnic cuisines, feeding the poor and, most importantly, bonding with each other.

As I sit among this remarkable group of young people, I cannot help but feel so blessed to be among a group that is willing to both influence and be influenced by each other. Realizing that this is my work, my job, my vocation and avocation, to harvest the richness of the human experience, is a humbling responsibility and a joy. Thank you fellow travelers. Thank you world!

Serving dinner to the poor

Serving dinner to the poor

Discovering the Treasure Trove Within

Intelligence quotient (IQ) has long been the ticket into selective academic programs, either in higher or even K-12 education. The top 3% of the IQ curve is what was defined as ‘gifted’ back in the day when the boys were in school. Top 4%? Too bad.

More recently, Angela Duckworth has shown that grit, or perseverance towards a goal, seems to be a better predictor of academic performance. As an educator for the past 21 years, however, I also know that the ability to do well on an exam predicts, well, the ability to do well on an exam. Thankfully for many of us, we have precious few exams after we graduate.

I have been saying for a while that we are all genius at something, and I believe it more than ever. You’ve read (ad nauseum, probably) about our 34 strengths (Clifton StrengthsFinders, CSF), our VIA Character Strengths and also about Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Another interesting assessment is Holland’s Vocational Model that includes 6 types of vocational interests. I was wondering about the overlap between these 4 ways to measure strengths and talents, and came up with the following table.

You can see that there are some strengths that convey across all 4 assessments, such as what is most closely related to the traditional IQ.   The other talent that spans all 4 has to do with relationships or social intelligence.

What is possibly even more interesting is what does NOT replicate with other assessments. For example, kinesthetic intelligence and courage do not appear in the other 3. This list is not even comprehensive, since I only listed the domains of CSF and VIA, not every one of the 34 and 24 respective strengths (only parenthetically when one matched a Holland or Gardner strength).

This is important because it means that there are so many different ways to be smart and talented, and our schools largely focus on one of them. That observation leads one to question the perhaps over-emphasis of our schools on IQ and book smart, a question a la Ken Robinson.


Holland Vocational Interests

(6 total)

Gardner Intelligences (9 total)


Clifton StrengthsFinders (34 total sorted into 4 domains) VIA Character Strengths (24 total sorted into 6 domains)
Realistic – Doers Executing Domain (perseverance)
Investigative- Thinkers Logical -Mathematical Strategic Domain Wisdom and Knowledge
Artistic – Creators Executing Domain (ideation) (creativity)
Social – Helpers Interpersonal Relationship Domain Humanity


Enterprising- Persuaders Influencing Domain
Conventional- Organizers Executing Domain (arranger)


Linguistic (communication)
Existential (connectedness) Transcendence
Moral (consistency) Justice


But for each of us as individuals, it means that we can question our own conception of how we are or are not smart.

I’m frequently in awe of those folks that discover in their golden years some da Vinci-like talent. Perhaps they’re more talented than us mere mortals. Or perhaps they are more willing to explore their range of intelligences. In other words, maybe we shouldn’t wait until we retire to explore what our innate and undiscovered talents are and that we should be open to all the different types of talents that may emerge. I’m not quite in my golden years (though that may be arguable) and I’ve only recently discovered my intrapersonal intelligence. Who knew that was a talent (well, Gardner, for starters)?

So cultivate your courage strength: explore and be open to the weird human tricks you can do with ease and excellence. Develop it. See where it takes you. Maybe it’s just something you can do for enjoyment. You might discover you want to spend more time with the hidden you.

Back to School

Back to school!

Back to school!

This year, back to school takes on a whole new meaning.  For the first time, there’s no bus schedule (well, a different bus schedule), PTA night, fee night (replaced by a big tuition bill), teacher meetings etc since my youngest is now off to college.    Since we moved out of the suburbs before the ink on his diploma was dry, we now live in the city within shooting distance of the university.  His yellow school bus is replaced by the city bus to campus, and on the first day of school he called in a panic because he didn’t have the $1.75 bus fare.  Different worries, for sure.

But the boys are not the only ones back to school.  After swearing I’d never ever go back to school, guess who has her backpack packed this Fall?

Part of me feels crazy for doing it and a part of me feels I have no choice but to follow my passion in positive psychology.  After being out of school for 20 years and having written hundreds of exam questions for thousands of students, I’m going to be on the receiving end of voluminous reading and writing assignments, uninterpretable test questions, vague academic assignments, and unreasonable professors.  Turnabout is fair play.

I can’t wait!

However, I am noticing that, like re-entering the dating scene after a 20+ year hiatus, things are different now after the early 1990’s since I’ve been a student.  I admit I’m having a bit of a culture shock with the re-entry as a student into the education system.  There’s the online course management system, there’s a discipline I have no formal background in at all, there’s students that are 20 years younger than me (though many of us are mid-career), there’s the distance element to this program, and it’s a fancy-schmancy private school (with accompanying sticker shock) when I’ve always been educated (and worked) in public institutions, literally my entire life.

I’m also continuing my day job since it is an executive graduate program where we meet in person once per month, with online interactions in-between.  So, my 20 years of experience juggling commitments will be an essential and useful skill for me to be able to manage both full-time programs.  I have also picked up other skills over the 20 years I’ve been in the work world that will hopefully help offset the disadvantage of being unable to devote 100% of my time to the program, such as critical thinking, writing, and a great deal more wisdom than in my 20’s.

Even the logistics of taking notes is different.  Do I use my iPad, my laptop, paper/pen?  Just for some perspective, I didn’t get a personal computer until graduate school and it was the Mac II, with 1 MB of memory.  Post-It notes and email became widely available only after I started my job in 1993.    I actually used to take notes using a fountain pen, which back then was quaint.  Today it’s positively pre-historic.

Mac II computer

Mac II computer

I liken the re-immersion into the modern dating and graduate student world to an Epcot Center roller coaster ride:  scary, exhilarating, fun but also interesting and delightful.  Positive psychology teaches us that stimuli that are enjoyable but not challenging (eating chocolate, watching TV) provide positive emotion that is short-lived, but those that also challenge us will provide growth and long term enjoyment.  I’m already enjoying the ride!