No More Bamboo Ceilings

For Revelle College junior Julie Lam and UCSD’s Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, it’s not the glass ceiling, but the bamboo ceiling that they’re trying to break.

The term, first coined by author Jane Hyun in her book “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling,” refers to the cultural and organizational factors that hamper Asian Americans’ success in the workplace. One example Hyun has given is the tendency Asian professionals have to put their heads down and only work instead of spending time building the informal rapport with their boss that often influences promotions.

Lam puts it as the lack of Asian professionals in high-ranking CEO and managerial positions, but either definition is pertinent to a university where in 2014, 45 percent of undergraduates listed their ethnicity as Asian.

At this year’s SASE Western Regional Conference, hosted by UCSD for the second time, the theme of “Bamboo Ceilings and Concrete Feet” put this problem in the spotlight. The conference introduced students to the companies that offer their dream jobs, while building professional skills and self-assurance.

“The idea behind Concrete Feet is to provide students with the confidence in their technical abilities to break this bamboo ceiling,” Lam said in an interview with the UCSD Guardian. “We help students develop this confidence through opportunities to learn from professionals who have succeeded and through workshops that will guide them through the process.”

The conference gave students the opportunity to network with representatives from eight top technological companies, including Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Boeing, who all hosted workshops throughout the day. Students came prepared in business attire and armed with resumes to meet individually with some of these companies, who gave them insight into how they’d stack up as candidates.

These 10 to 15 minute meetings addressed another of Hyun’s main concerns: namely that Asian professionals tend to not sell themselves as well as their Caucasian co-workers, simply because it’s not a cultural norm.

“In an organization, you do need to understand how to promote yourself,” Hyun said in an interview with NPR. “And I think if you talk to most of the Asian individuals who are working in these organizations, most of them are uncomfortable with that because they didn’t grow up with … the idea that you can actually boast about your accomplishments.

Resume building and professional networking aside, SASE’s conferences are also an opportunity for students to mingle with their peers, with 205 college students and 40 high school students attending Saturday’s event in Price Center. Their majors span the scientific spectrum — from structural and aerospace engineering to biology and cognitive science.

This year’s attendees benefited from a keynote speech by Dr. Vu Pham of Spectrum Knowledge, the author of “Impressive First Impressions: A Guide to the Most Important 30 Seconds (And 30 Years) of Your Career.”

Each conference has also featured a “design problem,” where students are presented with a creative challenge from a host company. This year’s prompt was sponsored by General Electric and asked students to find applications of GE Lighting in GE Healthcare.


The results were about as impressive as one would expect from science and engineering students working in groups of 10, and included, for one, lights that clean up bacteria when there is no movement detected for a certain amount of time.

All of the groups were graded based on research, a two-minute pitch of their ideas, as well as their creativity and practicality. Two winning groups were chosen based on their ideas to visit a local GE site.

But for Lam and students like her, the benefits of SASE go beyond the yearly conferences. The confidence-building and networking they learn at SASE helps them succeed both inside the organization and outside as they begin their careers.

As the internal vice president of SASE’s UCSD chapter, Lam was recognized in SASE’s national magazine and works in conjunction with the White House Initiative to introduce high school students to college STEM fields.

“The thing that I benefited from the most as part of the officer team is that I was able to develop my leadership skills and I was also getting my name out there,” Lam said. “I joined the organization as a shy freshman who ended up taking a risk and applying to become an intern for the officer team.”

SASE has plenty to do in the time before next year’s conference, as the organization strives to fulfill its three core missions: preparing Asian-heritage scientists and engineers for success in the global business world, celebrating diversity on campuses and in the workplace and providing opportunities for members to make contributions to their local communities.

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