The Asian American Experience

The Asian American Experience

Photo by Richard Howard

Photo by Richard Howard

It seems as though the universe wanted Assistant Professor of Psychology Stephen Chen to come to Wellesley.

The psychology department had requested permission from the administration to hire a cultural psychologist and were particularly interested in finding someone who studied Asian American psychology, Chen’s specialty. Bolstering the department’s request was the fact that the College was poised to offer a minor in Asian American studies, provided it could hire another faculty member in this area. And Chen himself was excited about the high percentage of Asian American students at Wellesley (24 percent of the class of ’18 identifies as Asian American/Pacific Islander) and the large Chinese American population available for study in the greater Boston area.

‘It got me interested in how all of these factors—schools, families, and cultures—play a role in children’s development and mental health.’

Of course, nothing’s perfect. Chen, who began teaching at Wellesley this past fall, didn’t anticipate relocating from California in time for one of Boston’s worst winters. But he seems to have taken it in stride. “My kids loved it,” he says with a laugh. “They’ll be expecting this much snow every year now.”

Chen himself grew up on the East Coast, in New Jersey, and attended Rutgers, where he majored in psychology and minored in Chinese. After college, he combined his interests by going to work for six years as a counselor and administrator at a school in Shanghai. Chen was able to interact closely with students and their families, “and it got me interested in how all of these factors—schools, families, and cultures—play a role in children’s development and mental health,” he says.

Chen went on to receive his Ph.D. from Berkeley in clinical psychology and focus his research on how culture and family processes—such as parenting styles and how parents express emotion in the family setting—impact mental health. He also studies self-regulatory processes, including how children inhibit dominant impulses, focus attention, and persist at a task.

His research centers on Asian American families. A current project examines how stress related to immigration and the process of acculturation affects Chinese American immigrants. Chen is partnering with the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center and explains that he’s particularly interested “in comparing the experiences of urban and suburban Chinese American immigrant families—those living in Boston’s Chinatown and in the metro-west suburbs—and identifying factors that can foster healthy family relationships in both of these groups.” Four Wellesley students are helping gather initial data this spring, and Chen plans to follow the same group of families over the next three years.

At Wellesley, Chen teaches Asian American psychology, making the College one of only a few colleges and universities to offer such a course. (He also teaches the introductory psychology course and a seminar on culture and emotion.) He recently led the launch of the Asian American Psychological Association’s Undergraduate Consortium in order to connect faculty and students interested in the subject, provide resources for undergraduate training, “and encourage Asian American students to pursue undergraduate study in psychology,” he says.

Chen accepted his position in 2012 (he completed a fellowship before coming to the College), thus enabling Wellesley to launch the Asian American Studies minor last year. Wellesley students have been asking for more courses in Asian American topics since the ’90s, explains Yoon Sun Lee, professor of English and director of the American Studies program, through which the minor is offered. Beyond the persistent student interest, Lee says, “many things came together to make this minor happen,” including faculty support and the administration’s openness to it. “And for the first time ever,” she notes with pride, “psychology and American studies have a cross-listed course!”

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