Stress, Test-Avoidance, and Unmet Needs: Lessons Learned from Eldo Kim and the Model Minority Stereotype

This week, Eldo Kim, a 20-year-old sophomore at Harvard University, falsely emailed university administrators that there were shrapnel bombs in four campus buildings because he was under incredible amounts of pressure to do well in his “GOV 1368: The Politics of American Education” final examination according to media reports. If Kim is convicted of the hoax, he faces up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $250,000 fine.

Kim’s misstep is surely an act that should not go unexcused, but I feel obligated to ask why few see Kim as a possible victim in this tragic event. While I do not condone his criminal actions, I am curious to understand what forces exerted enough pressure for Kim to feel that the benefits of a canceled or delayed exam outweighed the costs of possible prison time. For instance, Kim clearly did not want to get caught for the hoax. He created a fake email account and used a temporary IP address before sending the false email message. It is quite possible Kim did not know the consequences he would incur if he were caught, but I believe that is beside the point. Although the only reason he was caught was because he used the university’s wireless network, which allowed investigators to identify his true identity, what would happen if he did get away with the hoax and was able to take his test as a take-home, which the rest of his classmates did in the wake of the bomb threat? Let’s say Kim did well on the hypothetical take-home final and earned an A in the course. What would Kim have learned if this was how the story really ended?

I think Kim is a victim because he felt so strongly that he had to do well in his college course that he would resort to falsely state there were bombs in college buildings. His behavior runs counter to the model minority stereotype that says Asians are “collective”—they put the needs of others before their own “individual” needs. Clearly Kim’s actions were selfish since he was only concerned with his achievement in the course. Or was he?

When I first learned of this unfortunate event at Harvard, I was reminded of Sinedu Tadesse, who was a junior in college at Harvard University when she murdered her Vietnamese roommate, Trang Ho, and then killed herself on May 28, 1995. The similarities I drew from both cases, Eldo Kim and the “Dunster House Murder-Suicide” case, were stress and unmet social and mental health needs. The family of Trang Ho felt strongly that Harvard could have prevented her death, citing that Harvard knew of Tadesse’s mental health needs and was negligent for not helping her. As a result, in 1998, the Ho family filed a suit against Harvard.

I urge us all to refrain from casting judgment and/or prognosticating the context and causes for Eldo Kim’s actions. We need to gain more information into what compelled Kim to act as he did. We might find that he had unmet needs. Higher education should be interested in the Eldo Kim case precisely because Asian Americans have a record of being neglected by institutions of higher education. For instance, on April 16, 2007, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history occurred. Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, killed 32 people, shot and wounded 17 others, and then took his own life. Cho, like Kim, was a Korean American student. Cho had been at Virginia Tech for several years before the massacre occurred, but, according to a range of sources, Cho had been diagnosed with several abnormal psychological conditions as a child. While Cho was the obvious perpetrator in the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech shooting, it is important to note that he had also been the victim of race-based discrimination while at the university. Mostly, Cho’s victimhood stemmed from the fact that the Virginia Tech community failed to provide him with adequate social and mental health services.

We do know that Kim had spoken to lawyers about the fact that, in addition to dealing with the pressure of his finals, he was also coping with the third anniversary of the death of his father. Research has found that, although the idea of being a model minority seems like a positive perception of Asian Americans and their community, this designation has negative effects. Did the model minority stereotype in part cause Kim to behave as he did?

According to Panelo, unstable mental health may arise from Asian Americans being perceived as a model minority. In addition to difficulties acculturating to Western values, which, according to Panelo, student affairs professionals should learn to recognize, Asian Americans are frequently rendered invisible by policies that fail to meet their mental health needs. Student affairs personnel can help with transition and support for Asian American students on campus by being cognizant of the developmental hardships associated with the process of acculturation as well as their mental health.

Nicholas D. Hartlep, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Illinois State University.