University of San Francisco
Dr. Kevin Chun is a professor at the University of San Francisco. His research focuses on family acculturation processes and their relation to health and psychosocial adjustment for Asian American immigrants.
What drew you to the field of psychology and your current interests (e.g., Asian Americans, acculturation, mental health, etc.)?
The field of psychology captured my attention when I enrolled in my first general psychology course in college. I initially thought of majoring in business after prodding from family members concerned about my future earning potential. However, I listened to my heart and decided to major in psychology simply because I loved the field. Unlike my experiences in other courses, I was enthralled by all of my psychology courses and truly enjoyed studying everything related to human behavior and mental processes. Gradually, I developed a strong interest in cultural issues in the field, especially in clinical psychology, which were conspicuously absent from my undergraduate texts. With the support of key mentors and faculty (esp., Drs. Francis Abueg & Gerdenio Manuel, S.J., both Filipino American clinical psychologists), I actively sought scholarship and volunteer research activities that nurtured my interest in Asian American psychology. This eventually led me to clinically oriented research at the then newly launched National Center for PSTD at the Palo Alto VA – Menlo Park Division where I investigated cultural and racial risk factors for PTSD among Asian American Vietnam veterans. This experience cemented my commitment to social justice issues and giving voice to historically marginalized Asian American populations. Around the same time, I discovered Dr. Stanley Sue’s pioneering mental health scholarship and decided to pursue graduate studies in clinical psychology under his mentorship at UCLA. Dr. Sue was the Director of the National Research Center on Asian American Mental Health at that time. His center contributed to an intellectual blossoming in the field by gathering some of the most talented and dedicated Asian American mental health scholars in the country. As a graduate student at this center, I further developed my interest in cultural issues in stress and trauma by investigating mental health risk factors for traumatized Southeast Asian refugees. With Dr. Sue’s tremendous mentorship, guidance and support, I pursued a psychology internship at Palo Alto VA Medical Center followed by a pre-dissertation fellowship and tenure track faculty position at the University of San Francisco.
At USF, I received support and guidance from another tremendous mentor, Dr. Gerardo Marin, a widely recognized leader in acculturation research and Latino psychology. He encouraged me to continue my stress and coping research using acculturation theory. Currently, I am working with my UCSF colleague, Dr. Catherine Chesla, to develop and test cognitive behavioral, family focused interventions to prevent and effectively manage type 2 diabetes for Chinese American immigrants. Although Asian Americans’ risk for type 2 diabetes is significantly higher than for European Americans, diabetes research (indeed, health research in general) with Asian Americans is relatively limited. Comprehending acculturation stress effects on Chinese American immigrants’ diabetes risk and health behaviors is especially needed. All of our diabetes interventions are conducted in Cantonese or Mandarin and culturally adapted based on qualitative data and feedback from the Chinese American immigrant community. I am especially interested in advancing acculturation and immigrant health research by improving how acculturation is conceptualized and assessed. This includes articulating the multidimensional and dynamic nature of acculturation with particular attention to family acculturation processes. I’m also interested in identifying linkages between specific acculturation domains, acculturation stress and health, and promoting immigrants’ bicultural efficacy in their daily health management across different cultural contexts.
A doctoral degree in psychology can lead to a number of different careers. Can you tell us about how you chose your current career path?
I was always interested in an academic career because it offered the freedom to do creative, innovative, meaningful and intellectually engaging work with students, fellow faculty and the community. I always loved undergraduate teaching and student mentorship in addition to research, so I focused my job search on modestly sized liberal arts institutions in diverse settings that valued both undergraduate instruction and research. Academia continues to afford a flexible work schedule, rich, life-long learning experiences and unlimited opportunities for intellectual and professional growth. I especially value the many opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange, which is a special feature of liberal arts universities like USF.
As you think back to your undergraduate days, what were some experiences that were helpful in bringing you to where you are today?
Finding a mentor always proved to be a key turning point for me throughout my schooling and career. I simply would not be where I am today without the generosity, support, and guidance of my mentors. Your mentor should ideally be a faculty member who can introduce and socialize you to your area of interest, help you explore and learn the requisite skills and language of the field, and point you in the right direction to pursue your graduate studies and career goals. Finding the right mentor requires some courage to meet with your professors, ask a lot of questions, and inquire about volunteer research experiences. It’s important to treat your meetings with potential faculty mentors as professional job interviews – search online ahead of time to learn about their research, provide evidence of your academic excellence, and be prepared to speak about your scholarly interests and initial graduate and career goals.
It’s also helpful to actively explore the Asian American psychology literature on your own using Psycinfo and other easily accessible university reference databases. This includes reading original research articles and book chapters that speak to your passion in the field. Don’t worry about fully understanding technical jargon. Simply being exposed to key topics and research methods in Asian American psychology can open your eyes and stir your interests. My own initial explorations of the literature outside of my coursework led me to Dr. Stanley Sue’s research and to many other pioneers in the field. Moreover, it exposed me to the vast range of topics in Asian American psychology and potential research and career pathways.
Finally, if you’re interested in clinical or counseling psychology, it’s important to pursue service-learning activities with Asian American and other culturally diverse populations that tap into a broad range of psychosocial issues. As an undergrad, I worked with low-income youth at a United Way afterschool program, visited older adult residents at a nursing home, worked at a homeless shelter, and assisted in clinical research at an inpatient PTSD unit for Vietnam War veterans. All of these experiences were incredibly helpful in identifying and fine-tuning my graduate school and career interests.
How do you think we can get more Asian Americans interested in psychology, starting at the undergraduate level?
My Asian American students and their parents are often worried that an undergraduate psychology degree leads to insufficient job opportunities, limited salaries and starvation. Although financial concerns are understandable, an undergraduate psychology degree can pave the way for an advanced degree in psychology (MFT, MFCC, PsyD, PhD) or in other allied fields like social work, public health, medicine, and even law. Also, there are viable career opportunities with an undergraduate psychology degree in human resources, marketing, public relations, government and non-profit community organizations.
I would especially encourage Asian American undergraduates to enroll in Asian American and ethnic minority psychology and Asian American Studies courses. Many of my students experienced a personal “awakening” in these courses by allowing them to explore their own identities, family relations, and communities’ histories and contemporary mental health issues.
Lastly, I would encourage students to become active student members of AAPA. I first joined AAPA as a first-year graduate student and it has remained a cherished professional home ever since. AAPA provides unique and meaningful opportunities to network with other Asian American psychology students and professionals, learn more about the field, and establish long-lasting professional and personal friendships.
What advice would you give any undergraduates who are thinking about majoring in psychology, or pursuing graduate school in psychology.
Immerse yourself in psychology coursework and research literature; learn as much as you possibly can then listen to your heart. If you find yourself captivated by your psychology lectures and readings, find that hours of reading and studying are almost effortless and even enjoyable, then psychology may be the major for you. Make a special effort to meet those psychologists who are doing exactly what you aspire to do. If you are passionate about psychology and serious about a research or academic career, first and foremost strive for an excellent undergraduate GPA. The top research oriented graduate programs are highly competitive, accepting only 2-10 students per year and require minimum overall GPAs of 3.5 or higher, and even higher psychology major GPAs. Also, learn about additional graduate admission requirements, speak with seasoned graduate students and be thoughtful and deliberate in your coursework and graduate school planning with the guidance of a faculty mentor. It’s also helpful to join a faculty member’s research lab, develop your own research program, and present your original research findings at undergraduate or professional conferences like AAPA’s annual national convention. In sum, discover your passion, actively seek information about graduate admissions requirements, find a mentor, and develop a long-term academic and research plan early in your undergraduate career. If you are truly passionate about psychology, sincerely committed to serving others, and studious and diligent, doors will eventually open, often in unexpected places.