The Intimate University

Korean American Students and the Problems of Segregation

The Intimate University

Book Pages: 216 Illustrations: Published: November 2009

Author: Nancy Abelmann

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian American Studies, Pedagogy and Higher Education

The majority of the 30,000-plus undergraduates at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign—including the large population of Korean American students—come from nearby metropolitan Chicago. Among the campus’s largest non-white ethnicities, Korean American students arrive at college hoping to realize the liberal ideals of the modern American university, in which individuals can exit their comfort zones to realize their full potential regardless of race, nation, or religion. However, these ideals are compromised by their experiences of racial segregation and stereotypes, including images of instrumental striving that set Asian Americans apart. In The Intimate University, Nancy Abelmann explores the tensions between liberal ideals and the particularities of race, family, and community in the contemporary university.

Drawing on ten years of ethnographic research with Korean American students at the University of Illinois and closely following multiple generations of a single extended Korean American family in the Chicago metropolitan area, Abelmann investigates the complexity of racial politics at the American university today. Racially hyper-visible and invisible, Korean American students face particular challenges as they try to realize their college dreams against the subtle, day-to-day workings of race. They frequently encounter the accusation of racial self-segregation—a charge accentuated by the fact that many attend the same Evangelical Protestant church—even as they express the desire to distinguish themselves from their families and other Korean Americans. Abelmann concludes by examining the current state of the university, reflecting on how better to achieve the university’s liberal ideals despite its paradoxical celebration of diversity and relative silence on race.


The Intimate University is an important book that contributes to different fields of studies. First of all, it contributes to studies of higher educational institutions by providing important pieces of information useful to policymakers for multicultural education. Second, as pointed out in the above paragraph the book contributes to Asian American studies by providing rich narratives dispelling the stereotypical portrait of Asian Americans who focus on academic success and college education’s instrumental value. Finally, it contributes to the literature on Korean American studies by taking intergenerational and transnational approaches to second-generation Korean students’ college education.” — Pyong Gap Min, Contemporary Sociology

“Abelmann’s ethnography is not a policy brief: the richness of the stories resists easy prescriptions. . . . Abelmann gestures beyond the cursory multiculturalism that passes for institutionalized diversity on most college campuses in the US to something more complex and, in the end, more anthropological.” — Samuel Gerald Collins, Asian Anthropology

“Nancy Abelmann’s 10 year ethnography on Korean American university students and their families provides insight into the tensions generated by race and recent immigration against the backdrop of the “intimate” university. Her work opens up fresh conversations related to racism, ethnic segregation, and “interethnic othering” through the experiences of a particular group of Asian Americans. The beauty of the work rests in Abelmann’s ethnographic aptitude through her ability to make strong connections with the students and understanding their cultural, historical, racial, generational, and gendered positions.” — John D. Palmer & Young Ha Cho, Educational Review

“This book is a joy to read, full of intimate portraits of immigrant families in which family members clearly play a central role in shaping each other’s lives. . . . I have already assigned this ethnography to both undergraduate and graduate classes here in California, an acknowledged Korean American mecca, and some of my students who straddle the tension that Abelmann describes— between the safety of the ethnic community and the ideal of the diverse, liberal college experience—have been able to relate to the book. In addition to its other contributions, this book also offers salient and much-needed thinking about the future of higher education in the United States.” — Kyeyoung Park, American Anthropologist

The Intimate University is a work that will be one of the most valuable referents for anyone interested in, among other things, issues of migration; minorities and their segregation in the United States; the university as an institution; Korean American society; and multiculturalism and diversity.” — Okpyo Moon, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“[T]he book captures an important segment of the continuously evolving story of racial diversity in higher education. It demonstrates how race does not have to result in explicit racism to matter in students’ lives and that racial realities are much more complex. I hope that readers gain a fuller understanding of this subset of Asian American students, see parallels with other communities of color, and be challenged to reimagine liberal education.” — Julie J. Park, Journal of Educational Research

“Abelmann presents compelling arguments regarding the experiences of Korean American students at university and how university rhetoric fails to manifest itself in the reality of acceptance of difference. . . . A volume to be applauded for its research, evidence driven conclusions and well considered arguments.” — Danielle Mulholland, M/C Reviews

“Abelmann’s study is a layered work. Her research drills down into the layers of campus dynamics, student psychology and the cultural dissonance experienced by Korean Americas of the second generation.” — Bill Drucker, Korean Quarterly

“Nancy Abelmann’s ethnographic study of Korean American students attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign could not be more timely. . . . [R]efreshingly engaging and accessible. . .” — Min Hyoung Song, Journal of Asian Studies

The Intimate University tells an emotionally charged story of Korean American life on and off the campus of a large public research university in the American Midwest. It dispels the myths and stereotypes about Asian Americans through the different voices of college students and their relatives and through the author’s nuanced analysis and culturally sensitive interpretation.” — Min Zhou, author of Contemporary Chinese America

“Nancy Abelmann brings to light the oft-hidden maneuverings that Asian Americans have to perform in schools as students of color and, at the same time, students whose color ‘does not count’ by virtue of their alleged overrepresentation or overachievement. The Intimate University is an incisive and provocative account of university schooling as a site for navigating the intricacies and contradictions of race, immigration, community formation, and identity.” — Rick Bonus, author of Locating Filipino Americans

“Nancy Abelmann’s stunning portrait of Korean American university life will cause us to rethink our understanding of multiculturalism and diversity in the academy. This valuable and sobering account of one minority group’s experience also speaks more broadly to the intersection of race, religion, and identity, revealing the paradoxical notions on which American diversity is based. Don’t miss this book!” — Cathy Small, aka Rebekah Nathan, author of My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student

“Nancy Abelmann’s unmatched gifts—a fierce intelligence, a hand that writes like the angels, and an empathetic sensibility uncommon in her field—are put to marvelous use in The Intimate University. This book is both a brilliant achievement and a gift to everyone struggling to understand the kind of world birthed after three decades of unprecedented global migration. While the subjects here are Korean American university students in the Midwest, the lessons we are taught are transcendent.” — Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, the Courtney Sale Ross University Professor and Co-Director of Immigration Studies, New York University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Nancy Abelmann is the Harry E. Preble Professor of Anthropology and Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part I: The Landscape

1. Here and There in Chicagoland Korean America 23

2. The Evangelical Challenge to College and Family 43

3. Shattered Liberal Dreams 66

Part II: Family

4. An (Anti-)Asian American Pre-med 87

5. Family versus Alma Mater 106

6. Intimate Traces 123

7. It's a Girl Thing 143

Conclusion 158

Notes 169

Bibliography 183

Index 195
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4615-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4597-8
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