‘Try Harder!’: SF Asian students ask why Stanford doesn’t want them

Written by Crissy Van Meter, produced by Angie Perrin

In the documentary “Try Harder!,” filmmaker Debbie Lum follows high school seniors as they apply for Ivy League admission. Credit: PBS.

Lowell High School is one of the oldest and best public schools in California. Notable alumni include Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, author Jennifer Eagan, sculptor Alexander Clader, and three Nobel Prize winners. Until recently, Lowell admission was based on merit and prospective students had to have excellent grades and test scores to attend. The student population mostly came from working-class Asian families, and many dreamed of getting into an Ivy League college afterward. 

In the documentary “Try Harder!,” filmmaker Debbie Lum follows Lowell students in their senior year as they apply to college and face immense pressure to perform. 

Originally a Midwest native, Lum moved to San Francisco after graduating from college and heard of the rigor of Lowell High School from her film partner Lou Nakasako, an alumni from there. 

“These kids in this science program were doing graduate-level science research at 14 years old,” Lum says. “Pretty ridiculous.”

Fascinated and impressed with Lowell students’ drive, She decided to make a film about them. 

“[The students] were really just teenagers. And they were so lovable and going through so much stress,” Lum says. “This very pivotal time in their lives … what happened is our whole team fell in love with them and then pivoted to tell their story.”

She was particularly interested in following the predominantly Asian experience at Lowell High School, where most students were children of immigrants. She hoped to capture the harsh realities they faced while pursuing the American Dream. 

Stanford University: dream out of reach?

Lum found that most of these students dreamed of going to Stanford but didn’t get in. 

In the film, one student says, “Someone asked, ‘Why is it that such an oddly small percentage of Lowell kids get to Stanford? Then someone else raised their hand and said, ‘Is it because we're all Asian?’ And the Stanford guy said, ‘Raise your hand if you would like everyone at your school to be the same?’”

Lum says Lowell students largely think they’re denied Stanford admission because they’re Asian.  

“When you look at their college results, it does seem like Stanford accepts fewer Lowell students than even other very elite colleges in America, and we interviewed teachers who said the same thing,” Lum says. 

The film explores the complicated nature of college admissions too, and Lum says many Lowell students worry that admission prejudices could derail their college dreams. 

“I think it is really troubling for Lowell students in particular who have seen that the way that college decisions are made, it's almost a mark against you,” Lum says. 

But this isn’t just happening at Stanford. UC Berkeley has been criticized for the same prejudices within their admissions department. And currently,  a case before the Supreme Court alleges that Harvard and the University of North Carolina are discriminating against Asians in their admissions practices.

Under constant pressure

The heart of Lum’s film is about the students’ journeys and the toll of academic pressure.

“As a filmmaker, what I was interested in really was how it impacts a young person's identity,” Lum says. “The sense that ‘I'm a failure no matter where I get in’ is a really common thing among kids today. And it goes beyond race and class.”

Much of the pressure comes from parents. One student named Alvan feels pushed to attend an Ivy League, but he wants to go to UCLA. And Rachel, a mixed-race student raised by a Black single mom, worries that she won’t live up to her mother’s expectations. 

Stereotypes were a challenge for Rachel, one of the few African American kids at Lowell, Lum adds. Rachel says she experienced a racist comment when another student didn’t believe that her Black mother was tough on her grades. 

“One of the big stereotypes that they encountered is this idea that if they're African American, that they are not expected to achieve academically, which couldn't be farther from the truth for someone like both Rachel and her mom, who's a college graduate herself,” Lum says. 

Alvan Cai figures out a math problem in “Try Harder!” Credit: Lou Nakasako.

The lottery scapegoats Asian students

“Try Harder!” got so popular that it influenced Lowell High School to adopt a lottery system rather than a test score-based admission, so that more Black and Latino students could get in. But this produced backlash and resulted in a Board of Education election in San Francisco, where several board members lost their jobs. 

“[Lowell] is not the only magnet public school. There's other schools that have selective admissions, but I think because Lowell is held up as the jewel of the school district that it, perhaps with justification, gets more scrutiny. It's really a complicated thing. I think it sheds light on just issues that are at play in education, and public education, in San Francisco, but everywhere,” Lum says. 

Over a third of students in San Francisco public schools are Asian Americans, and Lum believes they’re often scapegoats there.  

Lum made the film before the coronavirus pandemic, and now, most of the students have graduated from college. She says that documenting them at such a pivotal point in their lives showed that they could get through it.  

“[A student] told us when he watched the film, he wished he could give that high school kid a big hug and tell him it's just gonna be alright,” Lum says. 

“[The students] were really just teenagers. And they were so lovable and going through so much stress. This very pivotal time in their lives … what happened is our whole team fell in love with them and then pivoted to tell their story,” says director Debbie Lum. Credit: Jonathan Reid.