EJun Yun was in fifth grade when his family immigrated from South Korea to Indiana.
“Even though I had friends that I frequently hung out with, we looked different, liked different foods and had different cultures,” said Yun, now a medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine. “It was hard for me to truly be myself.”
Khang Phan’s experience as an American of Vietnamese descent was different.
“Growing up in a predominantly white city, I was never much in touch with my identity,” he said.
Both Yun and Phan found needed community and an enhanced appreciation for the diversity within Asian American cultures through the Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association (APAMSA) at IU School of Medicine. They will serve as co-presidents for the upcoming 2023-24 academic year.
APAMSA is a national organization for medical and pre-medical students committed to addressing the unique health challenges of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. The local chapter was founded in 2019 by medical students Seungyup Sun (Class of 2022) and Lily Suh (Class of 2023) and is the newest diversity-affinity student interest group at IU School of Medicine.
“I think we were all shocked that IU School of Medicine did not have its own chapter, especially since we are the largest medical school in the nation with a good number of AAPI students,” said outgoing co-president Manda Wang, MD, a Class of 2023 graduate.
Now APAMSA serves as a forum for student leaders to develop initiatives addressing health care disparities and other issues affecting Asian American populations while also serving as a gathering place for medical students—of AAPI heritage or otherwise—to meet, exchange experiences and “develop both personally and professionally through leadership, mentorship and service,” Wang explained.
“Asia is the biggest continent in the world and encompasses so many different cultures,” Yun said. “Since coming into medical school and joining APAMSA, I have learned to appreciate a variety of languages, holidays, customs and delicious foods. We welcome anyone of any culture who appreciates Asian culture—anyone is welcome to join and hang out with us!”
Dispelling the myth of the ‘model minority’
Several minority populations—including Black, Hispanic and Native Americans—are underrepresented in medical professions, and many initiatives have been developed to address those gaps. By contrast, Asian Americans are often labeled as overrepresented in medicine. While comprising about 6% of the United States population, Asian Americans have a two- to fourfold higher representation in medicine—17% of active physicians and 19% of full-time medical school faculty identify as Asian.
“Asian Americans are often overlooked as the ‘model minority,’” said Corinna Yu, MD, a second-generation Taiwanese American who is the faculty advisor for APAMSA and an assistant professor of clinical anesthesia at IU School of Medicine. “DEIJ initiatives and health research often lump all Asian American subgroups into one category and ignore the breadth of cultural, genetic and socioeconomic differences.”
Specific Asian American subpopulations are underrepresented in medicine, including individuals of Thai, Hmong, Burmese, Laotian, Cambodian, Indonesian and Japanese heritage, Yu noted in an article published in the ASA Monitor, the publication for the American Society of Anesthesiologists.
“This underrepresentation is just not acknowledged because our society tends to lump all Asians into one group,” said Wang, who is Chinese American. “We hope to create an environment to recognize and celebrate our differences. AAPI populations are very diverse. I have loved learning about other cultures aside from my own.”
Even among “overrepresented” Asian subpopulations (including Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese and Korean), there remains an underrepresentation in leadership. Cultural barriers and biases contribute to what is known as the “bamboo ceiling.”
“True representation should reflect voice and power, and until Asian Americans are visible at the highest levels of leadership, there is work to be done to break down the bamboo ceiling,” Yu observed in her article. “We need to understand our conscious and unconscious biases toward Asian Americans, collect and analyze data using disaggregated categorizations of subpopulations to include underrepresented Asian Americans, and work to promote Asian Americans into leadership positions.”
Caring for Indiana’s Burmese community
APAMSA members recently conducted a health screening fair in collaboration with the Burmese American Community Institute for Indianapolis’ large refugee population from Myanmar. Central Indiana is home to one of the largest Burmese communities in the United States with more than 24,000 Burmese Americans living on the south side of Indianapolis.
“We screened Burmese Americans in southern Indianapolis for hypertension and Type 2 diabetes,” Phan said of the successful health fair. “In the future, we aim to provide hepatitis screening since this disease disproportionately affects Asian Americans and especially Burmese Americans.”
Beyond screening, APAMSA aims to provide resources for healthy living and connect members of the Indianapolis Burmese community to primary care providers.
“Because of cultural views and other barriers, the Burmese community has not had much health care in general,” Phan said.
These kinds of interactions are invaluable as APAMSA members seek to become compassionate and culturally competent physician advocates.
A place to grow and belong
Through his experiences with APAMSA, Phan has developed a deeper appreciation for his cultural heritage as well as other AAPI cultures.
“I've learned that while most of us have had different paths to get to medical school and APAMSA, we all share the same goals of wanting to be empathetic physicians who embrace the challenges of cultural health care while learning and growing our cultural intelligence throughout our medical careers,” Phan said.
Finding a place to “belong” is what prompted Yun to start a Korean American Student Association at his undergraduate university and part of what compels him now to step into leadership with APAMSA. The need for community support was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic when incidents of racism toward Asian Americans increased across the United States.
“I hope to always find ways to provide a community where Asian Americans can feel safe and find their sense of belonging,” he said.
Yet APAMSA leaders want all medical students to know they are welcome to join. APAMSA hosts a variety of events throughout the year including social mixers, service projects, mentorship opportunities, and informative sessions on topics of interest in medical education and advocacy.
“APAMSA is an inclusive organization,” Phan said. “We provide a variety of events for any medical student wanting to serve the community, learn about AAPI topics in health care or just have fun! We'd love to have you be a part of our APAMSA family.”
Celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month—a celebration of the historical, cultural and present-day contributions of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. IU School of Medicine recognizes the social trends and health disparities that impact the well-being of the AAPI community and is working with its partners to provide culturally competent care. IU School of Medicine celebrates the significant contributions of its AAPI community members.
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Laura is senior writer with the Office of Strategic Communications and loves to tell the stories of outstanding students, faculty and staff at IU School of Medicine. A native Hoosier, she has over 25 years of experience in communications, having worked with newspapers and other media organizations in Indiana and Florida, along with small businesses, community groups and non-profit organizations. Before joining IU School of Medicine in January 2020, she was editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine serving the community of Estero, Florida.