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Be Who You Want to Be, at Drexel

By Alli Fossner

smiling woman standing beside a yellow research board outside on a sunny day

April 05, 2022

Growing up in South Brunswick, New Jersey, psychology major and student advisory board member Sanjana Oak rarely saw herself represented on the television screen. When she did, that character was grossly stereotyped or there only for comedic relief. What was worse, in real life, her peers expected her to behave in that same way.

“It got to a point where I didn’t really want to embrace my Asian culture,” says Oak.

Curious about whether her experience was unique, she set up a research project through the STAR (Students Tackling Advanced Research) Scholars Program in the Pennoni Honors College.

“I wanted to see if this was something common across multiple different people, or if it was just something that I thought when I was growing up,” Oak says. “What I found was that there were, based on certain portrayals of certain characters, a lot of people that didn't feel pride in their ethnicity.”

To conduct her study, Oak sent popular video clips of well-known Asian characters (particularly associated with children’s shows) to both Asian and non-Asian participants. From there, the participants rated the positive and negative traits associated with the characters. For Asian participants, she added questions pertaining to how they felt about their ethnic pride after watching the videos.

“We found that a majority of the character traits the participants listed were negative, and there was a connection with the percentage of negative traits and my participants’ ethnic prides—in the sense that for characters who had more negative traits listed, ethnic pride ratings were lower,” Oak explains.

Oak credits STAR with giving her important insight into her future. The highly competitive opportunity allows first-year students to engage in faculty-mentored undergraduate research during the summer after their freshman year. 

star scholar research board depicting psychological research done by Sanjana Oak“It didn't really feel like I was doing work; it just felt like I was doing a personal project and getting paid for it,” Oak laughs. “I loved working with my mentor, Dr. Danette Morrison. And doing research this early in my academic career, it just solidified the fact that I do want to pursue higher education and do research as part of that higher education.

“Being able to see results after a really short period of time, and to see people interested in a project that I was working on, it made me think maybe there is something that I can do here,” she continues. “I potentially can have a huge impact on a lot of different people. It was life-changing to hear that. Even though I did this with just a specific group of people, it can be applied to so many different ethnicities and so many different cultures.”

Oak has provisional admission to the accelerated degree program (BS + MS) in psychology, so ensuring that she wanted to continue down that path was crucial in her first year. The accelerated option and Drexel’s renowned co-op program were her top determining factors when choosing a school.

“Coming to Drexel, it's a brand-new slate, and I could be whoever I wanted to be. Drexel provided all the opportunities to pursue the things that I wanted to pursue. If someone asks, ‘Why Drexel?,’ it would be because there's so many options for you to do whatever you want to do and figure out who you want to be and what impact that you want to have on the world.”

*This study was done for educational purposes only and was not IRB approved.