Research in higher education has largely overlooked the role of geography in Asian American college students' experiences. Yet, studies from other academic disciplines have demonstrated that different areas of the U.S. exhibit unique social, cultural, and political dynamics related to race. Efforts to cultivate inclusive and supportive campus environments for Asian American students may therefore benefit from understanding the influence of geographic context on their racial identities. This is particularly relevant for Asian American students in the Midwest, a region where Asian Americans are often assumed to be absent but have actually been long present and are now rapidly growing in number. This study therefore sought to explore how the social, cultural, and political contexts of the Midwest influence how Asian American college students make meaning of racial identity.
Guided by theories of ecological systems, racial formation, and racial identity construction, this qualitative single-site case study combined student interviews, observations, demographic analyses, and document reviews to illustrate the multilayered influences on Asian American students' racial identities. Findings suggest that Asian American identity is a contextualized phenomenon, shaped by interactions between external environmental forces and participants' internal meaning-making processes. Specifically, the distinct social, cultural, and political contexts of the Midwest create a unique set of environmental conditions within which participants actively construct their Asian American identity.
These environmental conditions are characterized by different points and degrees of access to race-related knowledge, including particular discourses regarding Asian American identity. Differences between the environmental conditions present in participants' hometowns and those that they encountered in college prompted participants to negotiate and eventually reconstruct their understanding of what it meant to be Asian American. This identity negotiation process varied by participant, informed by their differing experiences with race and racial identity prior to college. As participants' understandings of Asian American identity evolved, so too did their perspective on the role of race in their past, present, and future lives. Overall, this study demonstrates how adopting a geographic lens can enrich the higher education field's understanding of Asian American students, while also offering insights into how to better facilitate the success of this population.