When she was growing up, 22-year-old Trina Lei had to navigate the public school system on her own.
“My parents could speak English well enough but at the same time, I feel like they weren’t as able to be as engaged in my education as much as they wanted to be, so it was really an independent process,” Trina Lei, who’s now a fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said. “There were teachers that were genuinely friendly but also I think [there] could have been more cultural sensitivity.”
Trina Lei, who is Filipino, and asked that she be identified by first name only due to her immigration status, said she experienced stereotyping from teachers, who expected her to live up to a “model minority” status and compete with other female Asian American students.
“It sounds weird but in math, in middle school, they would make you do those speed multiplication tests. There was this other Asian American girl in class and there was always this contest that they looked to between me and her, like seeing who would finish our multiplication test first. I thought that was interesting. I’m pretty average in math, I’d say,” Trina Lei recounted.
The pressure to live up to the model minority stereotype has been particularly hard for Trina Lei because she faces multiple barriers as an undocumented Filipino woman. Not long after she turned 19, her parents were put in detention. That put her in a position where she was forced to take a year off from school to take on more responsibilities and make money to provide for the family.
“For me, being the oldest in my family too, that puts a lot of weight on my shoulders in terms of how I’m going to be able to take care of my family in the future or even the next year. That model minority ideal means I have to do well in school and excel and graduate on time, and at the same time, generate income to help my family out,” Trina Lei said. “For a lot of low-income, undocumented folks, there is a very unrealistic comparison. It hurts the [Asian American Pacific Islander] community a lot.”
How Asian American and Pacific Islander students get lost in the shuffle
In conversations about educational access and quality of education for students of color, Asian students like Trina Lei are often ignored. There is a perception that Asian students don’t need help, which prevents some of them — particularly students from the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, which are particularly disadvantaged — from getting the help they need. College attainment, for example, looks very different when you disaggregate data on Asian students.
A Campaign for College Opportunity report released this month shows a 60 percent variation across all subgroups in the Asian American community in California. When you look at Indian adults who are 25 years old and older, 70 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 10 percent of Laotian adults do. Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Guamanian, Chamorro, and Samoan students all fall below the average 31 percent for adults with a four-year degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011-2013 American Community Survey. College completion rates in California tell a similar story, with completion rates at California community colleges varying by 20 points among Asian Americans. Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander students had completion rates that were about 21 percentage points lower than those of Asian American students.
When all of these groups are placed under the umbrella of “Asian,” however, the nuances are often lost — which means that the economic barriers many Asian American subgroups and Pacific Islanders face are being ignored by educators and policymakers.
When you look at median household income by race and ethnicity, the median income for an Asian household is $71,709, compared to $56,203 for white households; $44,194 for American Indian and Alaska Native household; $44,938 for Pacific Islander households; $37,469 for Hispanic households; and 35,564 for black households, according to a 2014 analysis of U.S. Census data by the Center for American Progress. However, if you look at data within larger racial and ethnic categories, you see that among Asian Americans, Hmong, Cambodian, and Bangladeshi Americans have the lowest levels of household income, which is lower than the national average of $53,000. When you adjust for cost of living, and most Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders live in large cities, you see that per-capita income is much lower for Asian American households compared to white households. That income disadvantage would be even starker for Pacific Islanders. Household income is also affected the fact that Asian American households are often multigenerational.
In California, where is a much more concentrated Native Hawaiian and Pacific islander population, those students are slightly more likely to transfer to for-profit schools than black students, at 22 percent of first-time freshmen enrollment in the fall of 2013, according to U.S. Department of Education data. For-profit colleges tend to have poorer completion rates and career outcomes compared to more traditional colleges and often misrepresent the amount low-income students are taking out in loans, leaving students with significant student debt they are unable to pay off.
The challenges of separating the data
Betty Hung, policy director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Los Angeles, said that it’s important for researchers and school districts to disaggregate the data in order to better understand students’ needs.
“When people look at Asian Americans and look at Asians as a whole without disaggregating it it really masks the really needs and challenges that these students face,” Hung said. “We see that these students face high poverty rates, that they struggle to learn English, that they have needs that need to be addressed to ensure that these students have real educational opportunity and access. And that has tremendous implications for these students and their families.”
Nonetheless, school districts don’t have to disaggregate data for Asian students right now. Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono (D) and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) introduced an amendment to the Senate’s bipartisan Every Child Achieves Act that would require school districts with more than 1,000 Asian American and Pacific Islander students to report disaggregated data by Asian groups as included in the Census such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Samoan, Vietnamese, and Native Hawaiian, but it was voted down in July.
There also has been little research on Asian Americans in general, much less on subgroups within that umbrella term or on Pacific islanders specifically, said Khanh Dinh, a professor of psychology and global studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who focuses on immigrant psychology and immigrant family dynamics. Dinh blames this tendency to clump Asian groups together partly on issues of practicality that make it hard to study all of these subgroups efficiently, as well as on the U.S. Census’ decision to place certain groups under the same name.
“There have been conversations among researchers, such as ‘Are we doing a disservice among any population when we clump everyone together?’ If we really want to focus on Pacific Islanders, let’s focus on Pacific Islanders,” Dinh said. “Let’s not try to make ourselves feel like we’re being inclusive by clumping everything together when we’re not really studying Pacific Islanders. I think it stems from the Census as well. They count all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in one group, so it’s that language, just like using ‘Hispanic’ when it covers so many different groups… With any of these labels, there are limitations.”
What policies could help?
Hung pointed out that better resources for so-called “Dual Language Learners” need to be a priority if policymakers want to ensure that all Asian students have access to a good education.
Though the U.S. Department of Education provides Title III funds, which are supposed to keep states accountable for Dual Language Learners’ academic progress, the funds are so paltry that they don’t provide enough incentive to ensure accountability. In addition, the Senate version of the Every Child Achieves Act, despite keeping Title III in place, provides less accountability for states because it simply asks districts to submit a report to their State Education Agency.
Another thing that could help is cultural competency training for teachers, and more acknowledgement that schools need interpreters for parents at meetings with administrators.
“I think what we need to do is have policies that ensure there is more cultural competence throughout the entire education system as well as higher education. There needs to be standards that are consistent, uniform, and comprehensive that ensure that teachers have the support and tools they need to be more effective,” Hung said. “There is not even awareness that if you are going to engage parents, you need to have interpreters for principal meetings.”
According to Hung, Asian students would also benefit from more enrollment slots and better funding for public universities, especially in California, where there is a higher share of immigrants coming from Asian countries than from Latin American countries.
“What we also see is that more than two thirds of Hmong, Samoan, Camobodian, Laotian and Vietnamese receive Pell grants. The high dependency on Pell grants and financial aid shows what we need is more financial aid support for more students, including [Asian American and Pacific Islander] students,” Hung said. “In California, public funding for universities is at an all time low. So what we need is really a shift and reinvestment in public higher edu to ensure that there is, that fees are lower, that there is also an extension of enrollment slots so there is more space for all students, including Asian American and Pacific Islander students.”
Hung said there also need to be more resources to help guide students once they begin their college career to ensure that college completion numbers improve.
“What we hear from students is that there is a lack of courses and advising and counseling about what classes to take and how to transfer them, so there needs to be more clear pathways so that students are able to graduate and actually succeed once they matriculate, and to make sure they transfer from community colleges to universities.”
The lingering fear of deportation
However, it’s difficult to address the larger problems many subgroups of Asian students face if the larger culture of fear families experience from detention and deportation is not addressed, Trina Lei, Fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, pointed out.
Although President Barack Obama made an executive order protecting undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and allowed students to attend college without being charged an international tuition rate in November of last year, Trina Lei pointed to his larger immigration policy. After all, the president has deported immigrants a a faster rate than any previous president, according to The Nation’s analysis.
“In terms of college access, what he’s done with traumatizing communities with deportation and detention, that fear will always be there for folks who want to come out and take advantage of whatever legislation comes out. That is something that I think would be difficult to do when there is that constant fear of deportation,” Trina Lei, said.
Even though 12,000 Chinese youths were eligible for the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, not many applied in the first two years of the program, in part because Chinese immigrants were afraid of falling out of the model minority stereotype once they were seen as undocumented.
For Asian American students whose families have emigrated recently, there are many psychological pressures to consider, but The American Psychiatric Association found that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the least likely to seek least likely to seek help for mental disorders. However, mental health providers need to stop assuming there is no interest among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, given the fact that these attitudes change quickly from generation to generation.
“They’re dealing with these intergenerational family issues, like war and trauma, and coming to the United States, you have to deal with the migration process. There’s the peer culture, the school culture, the parental home culture, and the general environmental culture so there’s layers and layers of cultural pressure in addition to all of these other kinds of pressure, like economic demands because a lot of immigrant families come to this country living in poverty,” Khanh said.