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Document Type

Dissertation - University Access Only

Award Date


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department / School

Rural Sociology

First Advisor

Diane Kayongo-Male


Eight percent of the population of the People's Republic of China is comprised of ethnic minority people, people with cultures (particularly languages and religions) that are distinct from the majority (or Han) Chinese. Ethnic students in China and elsewhere face considerable obstacles to getting a good education. Only about two percent of all college-age youth can be enrolled in Chinese universities. The odds against being admitted are great for the average Han Chinese. If the figures for Han and non-Han students are compared, the odds against minorities being accepted into college are truly staggering. Yet a tiny percentage of Chinese ethnic minority students do manage to beat the odds and win college admittance. These students find ways to function effectively in a second culture using a language other than their native one. How do these students do that? What role does ethnicity play in the educational achievement of these students and in the empowerment of their minority groups? This research project addresses those issues. More specifically, this research project examines the education of minority students attending Yunnan Normal (Teachers) University in the city of Kunming in southwestern China. Almost 20 percent of the students who attend Yunnan Normal are members of ethnic minority groups. The theoretical orientation of this work is symbolic interactionism. Qualitative techniques used to gather and analyze data were the following: (1) Intensive interviews with 32 minority university students; (2) Field observation at universities, at primary/ secondary schools, in villages and with families; (3) Key informant interviews with Chinese researchers, educators and officials; and (4) Content analysis of students' biographical essays and personal identity tests. The major findings of the present study generally align with earlier work done in this area. The major findings are: (1) Some ethnic minority students are able to construct personal identities which allow them to do well in school. In other words, they learn strategies to construct selves which make academic achievement possible. (2) These socially constructed selves rely heavily on the backing of reference groups at the family, village, primary /secondary school and university levels. Personal definitions of self by ethnic students are combined with social definitions by reference groups. The result is a constructed self, personally empowered to overcome academic obstacles and to achieve in school. (3) Self-conceptions at the individual level are influenced by social structures at the societal level. The structural context of interaction sometimes constrains and sometimes supports the construction of achievement-oriented selves by ethnic students. Discriminatory practices would be an example of a structural constraint. Preferential government policies which give advantages to minority students in China (much like affirmative action in the United States) would be an example of a structural support. (4) Reference groups strongly influence how ethnic students view themselves, and self-concept plays an important part in academic achievement. (5) The process of empowerment among ethnic students is rooted in their commitment to help their families and their villages. The logical way to do this is by acquiring education for themselves. Through this education, the students also acquire prestige and power to make changes that benefit their ethnic groups. Practical contributions of this research include an increased understanding of what makes education work and work well for minority students in China, and possibly elsewhere. Theoretical contributions include a more precise understanding of identity work, as it is done by ethnic students and their reference groups at the micro level, and of the way social structure affects this process at the macro level. A model, showing the construction of achievement-oriented selves by ethnic students, was developed.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Minority students -- China -- Kunming Shi -- Psychology
Identity (Psychology)




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