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Research page

My research interests focus on investigating the impact of socio-cultural factors on the psychological adjustment and identity development of marginalized individuals, particularly racial/ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees. As a community psychologist, I strive to understand the individual as part of a larger system that is both an individual making choices about her/his behaviors but is also influenced by the norms and standards within a particular setting. Additionally, I try to understand the experiences of marginalized individuals from their own worldview using a strength-based approach to avoid the more deficit-oriented perspective that often dominates psychological research. The deficit-oriented perspective tends to focus on negative individual/group attributes while undervaluing potentially positive group attributes. Using this person-in-context orientation, I have two lines of research that examine (1) how different situations and setting norms affect members of marginalized groups and (2) how these individuals adapt to different settings.
Examining the Power of Setting Norms on Marginalized Groups
Research has long shown the importance of teacher’s expectations in affecting student learning and academic achievement through self-fulfilling prophecy (Merton, 1948) and learned helplessness (Seligman & Maier, 1967). Specifically, students perform at higher levels when teachers hold high versus low expectations (Weinstein, 2002). Although research consistently replicates this finding for academic expectations, little consideration has been given to the effect of other types of expectations. As part of a larger ethnographic investigation (Birman & Tran, 2007), I conducted a qualitative interview study to understand the types of expectations teachers held for a distinctive group of refugee students, Somali Bantus (Tran, 2007). Using grounded theory analysis, results showed that teachers held both academic and non-academic expectations of refugee students. Across all interviews, teachers reported expectations generally reflecting a need for students to become more “American” and adapt to classroom norms over time. This finding suggests that immigrants/refugees may acculturate to the U.S. in part because of teacher expectations. Although acculturation is defined as the change that occurs when two cultures come into contact with one another (Szapocznik, Scopetta, Kurtines, & Aranalde, 1978), it is often studied as an individual choice that immigrants and refugees make rather than as a process subject to acculturative press.

While prior research has generally focused solely on teachers’ expectations of long-term academic performance. An unexpected finding revealed that teachers held different day-to-day expectations and long-term expectations that may impact student performance differently. While it is largely believed that high expectations are universally beneficial to student performance, the findings in this study suggest there may be potential negative consequences of inappropriately high expectations in the short-term. Although it is beneficial to expect students to achieve long term success, those expectations must have appropriate staring points closer to where students are currently achieving academically and socially.

Building from this research, I will continue to study the extent to which students are actively choosing to acculturate and the extent to which setting norms require such acculturation for success. Specially, I will investigate the extent to which teachers expect and pressure students to acculturate (self-fulfilling prophecy) and the extent to which students recognize the acculturative pressure and choose to succumb to the pressure (learned helplessness). Although both theories suggest that high expectations produce high performance and vice versa, it is important to understand whether or not it is necessary to understand the student’s perception as indicated by theories of learned helplessness but not self-fulfilling prophecy. I plan on cultivating relationships with local schools and teachers to understand how different types of expectations influence the performance and general psychological adjustment of marginalized students within the school and classroom context.
Examining the Adaptation of Marginalized Individuals
In examining the adaptation of marginalized individuals, I use a life span approach to understand how varied experiences throughout one’s life influences psychological adjustment. For example, I found that in a community sample of Vietnamese refugees’ psychological adjustment, the impact of both pre- and post-migration experiences differently predicted a diverse set of outcomes (Birman & Tran, 2008). A particularly salient factor proved to be whether prior to migration the individual spent time in re-education camps as a political prisoner. Former political prisoners reported significantly more first-hand traumatic experiences than other Vietnamese refugees. Multiple regression analyses showed pre-migration factors predicted anxiety levels whereas post-migration factors predicted levels of depression, feelings of alienation, and satisfaction with one’s life. These findings highlight the importance for acculturation theories to consider the unique experiences of each target group, particularly the impact of experiences prior to migration and more recent post-migration factors. Additionally, measuring American and Vietnamese acculturation separately, I found both types of acculturation predicted different types of psychological outcomes. In a different study, I combined qualitative and quantitative methods to explore the meaning of the concept “American” among undergraduate students of different racial/ethnic backgrounds and generational statuses. Results found that members of different racial/ethnic groups and generational statuses define the term “American” differently (Tran, 2009). Together these findings suggest the importance of considering the target population’s unique experiences and personal constructions of important terms used in studying their experiences. My next studies will continue to build on these findings by exploring how immigrants and refugees understand their immigration and resettlement experiences.
Evaluating the Field’s Understanding of Asian Americans
Experiences of marginalized groups in the U.S. are often plagued by a history of racism and discrimination associated with group prejudices and stereotypes. Scholars have argued that these factors are often neglected in research on Asian Americans (Sue & Okazaki, 1990). Originating from the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the prevalent image of Asian Americans as the “model minority” suggests that racial minorities are not systematically oppressed, and that through hard work one may achieve success (Brand, 1987). Proponents of this stereotype insist that Asian culture instills a work ethic and a value of education that other “less successful” minority groups lack. Although Sue and Okazaki (1990) debunked this image of academic success by showing the lack of empirical support for its claims, research continues to promote the image of Asian Americans as model minorities. I conducted a systematic review of research on the academic performance of Asian Americans to update Sue and Okazaki’s review and determined that through methodological and analytic flaws research continues to support this stereotype (Tran & Birman, under review). Researchers continue to atheoretically combine Asian American ethnic and generational groups. Researchers also tended to infer culture as the explanation for Asian American students outperforming Whites without examining the impact of socio-political factors. These studies continued to perpetuate a deficit-oriented view of Asian Americans on attributes thought to be related to culture (e.g., personality characteristics, parenting behaviors) by suggesting deficiencies among Asian Americans in all qualities that differed from White participants. Ultimately, these shortcomings make it impossible to determine whether in fact Asian Americans’ perform no different from or better than Whites. My review suggests that in order to understand the Asian American experience, studies must consider the impact of discrimination across different domains including academic performance. This is the purpose of my current work.

As a first step, my dissertation examines the impact of racial socialization messages in one’s socio-cultural environment and explores potential ways that Asian Americans cope with the reality of discrimination (Tran, 2009). Asian Americans report similar levels of general racism as African Americans and Latinos but significantly higher levels of daily life stressors (e.g., microaggressions, Sanders-Thompson, 2002). This project expands our current understanding of how Asian Americans experience and cope with discrimination focusing on constructs unique to their experiences. For example, negative stereotypes of African Americans stem from their shared history as slaves and subsequent oppression in the U.S. Based on this history, African Americans would benefit from building a strong, positive affinity for their racial group (high racial identity) and to be negatively affected by holding negative evaluations about their group. On the other hand, Asian American stereotypes of the “model minority” originate from arguments made that the U.S. is a color-blind nation where those who work hard achieve success (Kim, 2000). This stereotypical image may have influenced how Asian Americans view the importance or irrelevance of race in the U.S. Unfortunately, research on Asian Americans has been modeled after research on African Americans, and currently focuses on investigating the importance of holding a strong, positive affinity for one’s group. Yet this research has yielded inconsistent findings. Therefore, my project argues for the importance of studying the racial lens through which Asian Americans view race more generally (i.e., color-blind racial ideology) and how these views moderate discrimination experiences in terms of self-esteem, depression, stress, and internalized racism. My study brings a new perspective to how people of color understand and interpret their experiences of discrimination. The next step will investigate the factors that shape one’s ideology on race. For example, color-blind theorists argue that color-blindness allows institutions such as schools to maintain a racially progressive and tolerant stance while legitimizing racial injustice (Gallagher, 2003; Lewis, 2003), and it is such settings that shape one’s ideology on race. Again, this line of work will add to the field’s understanding of the impact of the dominant culture on the marginalized individuals.

The research that I have done and will continue to do requires a team effort. Therefore, I am deeply committed to involving, training, and mentoring students to do research. My research career began as an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Sandra Graham’s and Dr. Jaana Juvonen’s Peer Relations Project, a large scale study of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Upon receiving my BA, I worked as a Project Manager for the Peer Relations Project with a team of 30-40 faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students. At my current institution, I have mentored over 30 undergraduate students engaging them in participant observation, focus group facilitation, literature searches, survey data collection, data entry, and research presentations. The diversity of the student body at UIC has allowed me to recruit many racial/ethnic minority and immigrant students to participate in research on topics related to their experiences. I believe that these experiences have proven meaningful for them because they allow them to learn firsthand about the experiences of the marginalized groups we study while simultaneously getting training on research design and methods. In the future, I will continue to create research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. I hope to continue teaching students the value of rigorous research and assist them to explore their own intellectual curiosities.

Birman, D., & Tran, N. (2007, March). No Somali Bantu Left Behind: Refugee Children Adjusting to School. Paper presented at 2007 Society for   Applied Anthropology’s Annual Meeting in Tampa Bay, FL.
Birman, D. & Tran, N. (2008). Psychological distress and adjustment of Vietnamese refugees in the United States: Association with pre- and postmigration factors. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78, 109-120.
Brand, D. (1987, August 31). The new whiz kids: Why Asian Americans are doing so well and what it costs them. Time, 130, p. 42-46. 
Gallagher, C. A. (2003). Color-blind privilege: The social and political functions of erasing the color line in post race America. Race, Gender & Class, 10, 1-17.
Kim, C. J. (2000). Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Lewis, A. E. (2003). Race in the Schoolyard: Negotiating the Color Line in Classrooms and Communities. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Merton, R. K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. Antioch Review. 8, 193-210.
Sanders-Thompson, V. L. (2002). Racism: Perceptions of distress among African Americans. Community Mental Health Journal, 38, 111-118.
Seligman, M. E. P. & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74, 1-9.
Szapocznik, J., Scopetta, M. A., Kurtines, W., & Aranalde, M.D. (1978). Theory and measurement of acculturation. Interamerican Journal of Psychology, 12, 113-130.
Sue, S. & Okazaki, S. (1990). Asian-American educational achievements: A phenomenon in search of an explanation. American Psychologist, 45, 913-920.
Tran, N. (2007). Teacher expectations of refugee children with no prior educational experiences in the American classroom (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Illinois at Chicago.
Tran, N. (2009, May). Is pizza American? Differences in the construction of meaning across race and generation. Poster presented at 2009 American Psychological Sciences Convention in San Francisco, CA
Tran, N. (2009). Using color-blindness to understand the effects of discrimination on the psychological well-being of Asian Americans. (Unpublished Dissertation Proposal). University of Illinois at Chicago.
Tran, N., & Birman, D. (under review). The making of a model minority: A critique of the Asian American academic performance literature. Submitted to Asian American Journal of Psychology Sept. 24, 2009

Weinstein, R. S. (2002). Reaching Higher: The Power of Expectations in Schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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