In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we want to dive into the challenges and opportunities for AAPI students.
As a first-generation college student, you learned to advocate for yourself and your own education—and now you help other students do the same through Leaders in Training. Why is it important for students to advocate for themselves? What does it look like in practice?
It’s super important for students to be able to advocate for themselves. It sounds cliché, but I tell my students, “You’re in charge of your own destiny.” Students from low-income or working class backgrounds don’t have an entitlement world view.
If, growing up, you’ve always had to work for everything, you haven’t been told to ask for things, or that you deserve them.
Take first generation college students. For most college students, if you don’t understand something a professor said, you go to office hours. But for first-generation students, if you’ve never done it before – and if you feel out of place already – there’s no impetus to go.
I see it across my work, when students get financial aid awards, and they don’t get as much as they thought they would, they just accept it. They don’t reach out to financial aid offices to say “I strongly request to appeal this.” That’s something that someone with an entitled mindset would easily do.
Instead, our students feel like, “This is what I got, this is what I’ll take, this is what I’m worth.” I see a lot of missed opportunities when students and families don’t know how to advocate for themselves or that they can.
My students check their grades weekly and look at their transcripts. I want to empower them to know what their class rank is, and advocate to get more help when they need it. Advocating for yourself is pivotal to succeeding in their work as professionals, so I want to ensure they learn it.
Do you identify with the AAPI community? Has that been a part of the work you do in education?
Yes, definitely. My dad came to America from the Philippines at age 17; my mom was born in San Diego, but from her mom is from the Philippines. I identify with the Filipino culture, from food to the home culture. For instance, I’m a homeowner, 29, and single, but my parents live with me; that’s part of the culture to take care of your parents. Filipino culture is part of everything that I do.
Growing up, I never had an Asian teacher or role model. But I didn’t unpack that until I was older and understood the statistics.
For the students I recruit in east Las Vegas [for Leaders in Training], 20% of the cohort are AAPI – from Laotian, to Thai, to Filipino. They saw someone who looked like them, and for some of them I was their only Asian teacher.
When I was younger, I wasn’t as conscious. The more I got into the work, the more I really did want to support AAPI students. Here in Nevada, AAPI children are the number one growing demographic of kids living in poverty. We have the third largest AAPI population in the west outside of California. But there’s a lack of representation. There’s a need for role models so people will understand, empathize, and be an ear to a community that doesn’t have a voice.
Let’s talk about the AAPI “model minority” stereotype. It’s often held up as proof that our public education system can work. But if you dig into the data, it’s not true for all subgroups. Have you seen the “model minority” stereotype harm students?
I have a student who is half Vietnamese and half Chinese. She also qualifies for free or reduced lunch. She volunteered over 800 hours in high school, which was documented through the United Way. She’s vice president of her school; she’s done internships, volunteering, and leadership. And I’m flabbergasted at the amount of college rejections she’s gotten. I can’t say that it’s because she’s AAPI, but I can’t believe she wouldn’t get in.
I have another student from Thailand, who is struggling to graduate. He has one or two more of the end of year tests he needs to complete before he goes to college. English is still something he’s still working on because we have no Thai teachers or influencers.
We have a lack of education among teachers, a lack of representation, and a lack of support for AAPI subgroups. We have no resources for different languages and cultures.
EdWeek reported that less than 2% of public and private school teachers are from the AAPI community. As a teacher from the AAPI community, what are you reactions to the lack of AAPI teachers in education?
It’s pretty crazy. In the school where I taught 5th grade, and where my nonprofit is, we have a high number of AAPI teachers. People find a community and want to be there. At our school, every month we do a grade-level lunch celebrating different cultures—one year we did a Filipino lunch.
That’s why I became a teacher, to encourage students to become a part of the social justice movement. I tell my students that they don’t have to teach forever, but it’s the ultimate way to give back. And I ask them, “How will we change stereotypes and statistics if we’re not going to be in classrooms to break that?”
In general, we don’t recruit AAPI teachers. We don’t do a good enough job of telling kids in low-income or high-minority schools to see teaching as a place where they can thrive.
What are the opportunities and challenges that you see for AAPI students in public education? How can we serve all students well and meet their individual needs?
Languages. Sometimes things are in Spanish, for example, but not in Thai or Tagalog. And we don’t have staff who understand. We need an Asian community resource center, where Asian students can get what they need.
For students, having teachers who are aware of cultural differences is important. If we don’t take time to think about things outside of our one way that we do things, we have a monocultural point of view. We need role models, language, college support. We don’t have a lot of minorities on campus; we do have a high percentage of Asians on college campuses, but they’re not low income.
Students feel the stereotypes, and feel people holding them to those stereotypes. The “model minority” stereotype does exist. And it’s an Asian cultural norm, but also working class, low-income viewpoint: “I will do what I’m told,” because that’s a cultural viewpoint. We have a lack of advocacy in helping people unlock what it means to be the owner of their destiny.
When we get together, we become more powerful. The Cesar Chavez movement is a great example of this, as people who have worked together to make something happen. If you come from working class or minority backgrounds, you can’t think if you made it that everyone else can too. Instead, we have to band together and help those behind us: this is the only way we’ll be a unified and formidable force.