The first time someone recognized me and asked to take a picture with me I started crying! She was visiting all the way from India with her family, and the fact that this little girl halfway across the world knew my name and was touring Harvard because I had inspired her really got to me … It’s unreal.Sienna Santer, College Content Creator
Nicholas Chae’s “A Day In My Life at Princeton University,” which has 1.1 million views on YouTube, begins with a shot of his iPhone alarm ringing. Chae, a first-semester freshman, gets himself ready, studies for a French test, grabs breakfast, goes to his writing seminar, takes the French test, eats lunch, attends an economics lecture, attends a photography class, hits the gym (arms day), rehearses with the orchestra, eats dinner with a group of friends, and works on an essay. As he is about to sleep, he tells us that he will “wake up early, get grinding again.” Chae also shows viewers some of the functions that he hits over a typical weekend, chopped and spliced together at a vertiginous, reality television-esque pace. He attends a girl’s basketball game, the Ivy Leadership Summit, a film festival, and a homecoming ball. “Got a lot of business, got a lot of networking done,” he says while running from one event to another.
While Chae whips around on his electric skateboard (another male vlogger staple), he says things like, “Fall at Princeton is the best thing ever.” When walking across Princeton’s newly built Lewis Center, he remarks, “It’s really cool that we have a school that is cultivating the arts and spending billions of dollars to build this brand-new building, which isn’t something that a lot of colleges will do.”
At this moment, I wondered if I was actually watching Princeton-sponsored content. The video is not sponsored, but as a whole, the relationship between Chae and Princeton seems mutualistic: Chae, with his ad revenue and institutional street cred, has become a human brand, with 500 videos, a college coaching ebook, and his own merch. Princeton wins free press, a minority representative, and a more democratized reach. Even the viewer may feel rewarded, appearing to gain valuable information about elite, rarefied spaces, bridging the “knowledge gap” between themself and more information-privileged applicants. Everyone wins, it seems.
Right now, millions of high school seniors are at home watching videos like Chae’s. As private and public college acceptances are rolling out for the class of 2025, they may be deliberating where they should go to college, if their families can afford private school tuition, or if in-person college will even exist come fall. Most, if not all, are home, unable to physically visit four-year universities, which have historically thrown elaborate open houses for admitted students. Thus, college content creators (CCCs) like Chae take on a surrogate role in showing what being at a school like Princeton is actually like, flashing a particular vision to the million viewers who simply wanted a glimpse into life at this elite university. Chae says, in another video, “my videos, my YouTube channel, other college YouTubers, have a bigger, if not equivalent influence [as colleges themselves] on whether or not students are applying.”
The amount of college-related content has blown up in the past three years, with videos depicting the gamut of college life, from move-in day up until graduation, and from sorority life to athlete regimens. However, videos like Chae’s, academically focused vlogs made by Asian American students at elite universities, have disproportionately bubbled to the top of my search results, even when I make sure to log out of my personalized YouTube algorithm. Videos like “COLLEGE DECISION REACTIONS 2019: Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, USC, & UT Austin” (900,000 views; the student, Chae’s younger brother, is currently attending Princeton), “A Day in the Life of a College Nerd” (800,000 views, undergraduate at the University of Virginia), and “A Realistic College Day in the Life at Harvard” (2.9 million views) were all created by college-aged Asian American YouTubers, particularly East Asian males. Nicholas Chae, Princeton 2021, has 125,000 subscribers; Arpi Park, Stanford 2022, has 270,000 subscribers; Yoora Jung, Notre Dame 2021, has 1,200,000; and Elliot Choy, Vanderbilt 2021, has 860,000 subscribers. Vlog content tends to include drone footage spotlighting verdant campuses, transition shots soundtracked by electronic pop and R&B, and time-lapses that push along dull study sessions. The slick production, editing, and institutional prestige differentiates these CCC’s from the deluge of other vloggers on YouTube—after all, college experiences tend to revolve around homogenous activities: studying, partying, eating.
The main issue with these YouTube vlogs, akin to the main issues surrounding social media and reality television, pertains to what kind of knowledge gap these videos work to fill. In the standard form of the “day-in-the-life vlog,” the aestheticization and maximization of campus life ignores the biggest knowledge gap between high schoolers and college students: that getting into a good college will not solve your problems, and may in fact exacerbate them. According to the American College Health Association, 40 percent of college students nationwide have felt “so depressed it was difficult to function” at least once from 2017–2018. Yes, college vloggers also make content on good mental health and practical study advice, as you can only get away with so many day-in-the-life videos. Chae himself uploaded a video entitled, “Sh*t I Hate About Princeton,” in which he speaks candidly about Princeton’s cutthroat competitiveness, its culture of stress, and its back-breaking workload. Yet “Sh*t I Hate About Princeton” has only seven percent of the views that “A Day In My Life at Princeton University” does, and so it makes sense that Chae caters his videos to the glossy style of the latter.
If Instagram and Keeping Up with the Kardashians are mercilessly critiqued for their addictive, artificial glamorization of quotidian life, should not college vlogs also be looked at the same way, as reality TV for the model minority? YouTube’s DIY ethos closes the gap between creators and viewers a bit more than the Hollywood machine, but nevertheless, these vlogs must be viewed more as entertainment than information, more alien than achievable. If not, insidious mental health consequences on high school students will only continue to proliferate.
According to 2017 Census data, 1.5 million Asians currently attend college in the United States, making up around eight percent of the overall college population—in contrast, Asians only make up five percent of the total US population. At Ivy League schools, this overrepresentation is even greater, with average Asian enrollment hovering around twenty percent. And although Asian American students have grown up largely invisible on the Hollywood screen, we have consistently been overrepresented on YouTube, which, in a way, is our platform: in 2008, when many early Gen Zs were first accessing the Internet, three of the top five most subscribed YouTube channels were run by Asian Americans. As a result, the skewed proportion of CCCs who are Asian Americans makes logical sense.
At Brown University, I asked a dozen Asian Americans in the class of 2023 whether or not they had watched college vlogs in high school: every single one said yes, and many even name-dropped Chae. Some watched because of curiosity or YouTube recommendations, but most saw these videos as a potential resource that could help them get into a place like Princeton, especially when most Ivy League schools require essays that ask, why do you want to come to our school? These vlogs provide the right material: microinteractions with other students, contagious enthusiasm, and specific hang-out spots on campus, which are critical when considering criteria such as Harvard’s (now infamous) evaluation of a “personal rating,” which Asians statistically score lower in. College vlogs become product testimonials, showcasing Asians who were admitted, who somehow pulled out and away from the crowd of faceless, high-scoring Wangs and Kims. They are the “de-Asianized” Asians who rid themselves of their ethnic flatness, an admissions strategy that, in Asian American communities, is passed around like an open secret, as the only way someone could possibly get into a school like Princeton.
It is easy to critique Chae for promoting institutions that need no promoting, and for tacitly embodying popular myths around admissions meritocracy. But it is a bit thornier to critique the noxious fallout of increased media representation in which, for stressed Asian American high schoolers, people who look just like them portray seemingly realistic glances of where they can go. People who look just like them hint that if they just try hard enough, they can wiggle their way into the single digit percentage of accepted applicants. Thus, for Asian American teens, these YouTube vloggers, who have all “made it” in our world of admissions mania, become “Hollywood representation” and “onscreen role models,” but only concretizing the myths that many of our parents have rammed down our throats since the day we could walk: getting into a good college is everything, and those who get into good colleges lack nothing.
Arpi Park, a sophomore at Stanford, creates troll-y “anti-college vlog” vlogs, which facetiously air himself as a decrepit student. He also mocks the homogeneity of college vlogs—his “A dAy iN tHe LiFe aT STANFORD UNIVERSITY” (650,000 views, with the title’s erratic capitalization itself imitating the “Mocking Spongebob” meme) is subtitled “Arpi makes dumbass videos.” Park gets up at 1:00 p.m., works out by climbing back into bed, sleeps through all his classes, and then falls asleep again, finishing his day by waking up at 10:00 p.m. In another one of his videos, “Realistic college advice for unmotivated students” (1.7 million views), Park doles out humorous, yet sincere advice for those who, like himself, are “serotonin deficient.” He tells viewers to intake copious amounts of caffeine, fall into a predictable routine, and to not participate in the “slacker olympics,” or the romanticization of laziness. He also says, “college isn’t a video where you can scroll through and skip to the best parts,” throwing shade at the “billions of other college day-in-the-life videos” that permeate YouTube.
Among the college vloggers that I have seen, Park’s content most accurately depicts students as humans, rather than machines that incessantly cultivate their social, economic, and cultural capital. His videos veer closer to the reality of what “a day,” in “a life,” at “a university” looks like: sitting and screen staring. Yet Park is still a student at Stanford, which has a lower acceptance rate than Harvard, and in his video, “HOW I GOT INTO STANFORD” (1 million views), he tells viewers, “You don’t have to get the best grades, or the best test scores, or even the most impressive extracurriculars […] just work hard in school, practice tests, do well on those tests, and pursue things that get you going.” Park, who in high school won national awards and got a perfect score on the ACT, thus reifies the same bootstraps myth as vloggers like Chae, saying nothing about key structural facets like race and class.
However, what is more interesting about Park is the geography he occupies. When zooming out of Park’s dorm room, out of the Tesla-laden streets of Palo Alto, and when looking at Silicon Valley at large, a region that is over a third Asian, the Mecca of the Model Minority, Park’s ironic content mirrors the image the Valley holds of itself: strong metrics, an innovative flair, and meritocratic achievement. Park has twice as many subscribers as Chae, which he accomplished with only a tenth the number of videos.
In the mid 2000s, Silicon Valley gave breath to platforms like YouTube, which then gave birth to Asian American content creators, and out of their channels rose a young, Asian American viewership hungry for any kind of representation. Comedian Kevin Wu (KevJumba), who in 2008 was the third-most subscribed YouTuber, said then in an interview, “the majority of my subscribers are Asian, because they relate to what I’m talking about, and they back me up,” and the same could be assumed for today’s college vloggers. Many of today’s teenage Asian viewers have parents who work at tech firms like YouTube, whose dreams are for their children to attend schools like Stanford and then become employees at companies like YouTube. Now, as these YouTube-bred students settle into college life, their own content production has less to do with the DIY sketch comedies they were weaned on, and more so with the ethos of the Amy Chua’s tiger parents and the sleek neoliberal sheen of Silicon Valley. They have moved to performing “Model Minority-ness” online, carving out and monetizing their own niche in the vicious wheel of college admissions.
This roller coaster flings out adolescents at every stop. Most high schoolers of the “model minority” already struggle enough in school: they sleep through classes, have occasional breakdowns, get yelled at by their parents, and cross their fingers in the hopes that universities will accept them. Under the veneer of these shiny college vlogs are the dire, unforgiving consequences of the Silicon Valley educational ecosystem: the kids whom it literally kills.
Hannah Rosin examines Silicon Valley’s mental health epidemic in her landmark article “Silicon Valley Suicides,” which looks at two of the top Bay Area high schools: Henry M. Gunn High School (about one-half Asian) and Palo Alto High School (about one-third Asian). The ten-year suicide rate for these two schools is between four and five times the national average, and in a nine-month stretch beginning in the spring of 2009, three Gunn students, one recent graduate, and one incoming freshman had thrown themselves in front of incoming Caltrains. At the time “Silicon Valley Suicides” was written, in 2015, Andrew Lu, a former Gunn student, posted in a viral blog post, “Looking back at the suicides, it seems that the demographic most at risk are Asian (Chinese) males in high school. (Hey, that’s what I am!)”
Although the specific reasons for suicide are varied and cannot be pinned solely on a competitive ecosystem, the very air these Bay Area students breathe is suffocating: Stanford’s campus is a seven-minute walk from Palo Alto High School, and a fifteen-minute bike ride from Gunn High School. This, to me, seems like a borderless panopticon, a prison structure by which inmates cannot see the guards who watch them, thereby constantly feeling under surveillance. For students living in Silicon Valley, their phones contain an endless feedback loop of college content, their classes contain some of the smartest students in the world, their “dream” university is just a short jog away, and everywhere around them is the fresh breath of California’s sunny immigrant dream.
“I think this is very new territory,” Chae says in a video released in late 2019, referring to the fact that such terms like “college content creator” did even not exist five years ago. “The entire college education system is about to get hit with an entire wave of new territory they have never seen before. There are literally hundreds of thousands of content creators.” Chae hints at the world to come, in which universities will increasingly be exposed online and perhaps lose control of their self-presentation. However, as acceptance rates continue to plummet and tuition rates continue to rise, elite institutions seem to have won in this exchange. Colleges have seamlessly integrated themselves into the era of social media by doing nothing other than sitting back and letting their mythos blow up.
In 2008, three of the top five most-subscribed YouTube channels were run by Asian Americans: Ryan Higa (nigahiga), Kevin Wu (kevjumba), and Christine Gambito (HappySlip). Ryan Higa, who dropped out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, got famous off of teenage sketch comedies like “How To Be Gangster” and “How To Be Emo.” Kevin Wu, who dropped out of UC Davis, made vulnerable vlogs like “I Have to Deal with Stereotypes” and “My Dad is NOT a DILF.” Christine Gambito trained as a nurse, but achieved YouTube stardom through her brash impersonations of her Filipino parents. Silliness encapsulated first-generation Asian American YouTube, which was a place to scorn stereotypes, feel better about failure, and experience private empathy with a public collective. Of course, not every Asian American on YouTube today is a college vlogger: many are video-game streamers, TikTok creators, and beauty gurus. And yes, the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians did important things for Asian representation on the Hollywood screen. However, my generation, which straddles the millennial/Gen Z divide, grew up seeing faces like ours reflected back to us every day after school, while huddled over our parents’ desktops and laptops. We grew up seeing pixelated strangers dressed up as their tiger mothers and aloof fathers, mimicking their broken, accented English, mocking Asian stereotypes that chart success on a narrow, zero sum ladder.
Is there a way for college content creators to reorient the very nature of their content? Could they refuse popular demand and de-aestheticize the university? Even the characteristically self-aware Arpi Park, in his “HOW I GOT INTO STANFORD” video, expresses an inability to think of creative content without defaulting to the cheap, reality TV that is fueling our admissions mania. He calls himself a “sellout,” saying, “I know I said I wouldn’t make this channel a college channel, but the thing is, I’ve made like three videos so far, and I’m already out of ideas […] and a bunch of you asked me about the stats and extracurriculars that got me into Stanford.”
Today, it appears that the modus operandi for Asian American content creators has undergone cosmetic overhaul: the popular vloggers are now those who have scaled the educational ladder and gaze down from the top. They are the ones who will beam footage to viewers like my ten-year-old sister—she is only one click away from falling down that rabbit hole. I can only hope that she, and others like her, will not spend their teenage years salivating anxiously over dystopian impossibilities. Instead, I hope that the thousands of hours my sister will inevitably spend on YouTube will give her mindless joy, and only that.
This essay appears in CT Examiner courtesy of Majuscule, tri-quarterly literary magazine.