Underrepresented Southeast Asian Americans in Higher Education

by Danielle Tran

The number of Asian American students has increased in many universities across the nation, comprising the majority of the student population and leading the way in higher education. Although the rise in Asian American students may seem convincing, not all Asian Americans hold true to this profile of high academic success, particularly among Southeast Asian American (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian) students. The aggregation of Asian Americans fails to account for the immense diversity within the communities, including ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender factors, and this failure to understand the social, cultural, and political contexts is detrimental for these Southeast Asian American students in attaining higher education.

According to Dr. Khatharya Um, “64.3 percent of Cambodians, 59.8 percent of Laotians, 71.7 percent of Hmong, and 39.4 percent of Vietnamese living in America have less than high school education”. These statistics clearly show that the number of Southeast Asian students in higher education is low, indicating that the idea of Asian American success and academic achievement is not true for all groups. With their political histories of war, dispossession, and relocation, a majority of Southeast Asian students are already at a disadvantage, along with their additional challenges of poverty and racism at schools and in society. Without contextualizing their experiences, it is difficult to properly address these issues and provide them with the resources to complete school, hindering the possibility of pursuing higher education. Therefore, without the necessary support from schools and administration, “Southeast Asian students continue to drop out or be “pushed out” of the educational system”, reflected by their underrepresentation in higher education.

Expanding on Southeast Asian students’ barriers to educational advancement, many students expressed how they would be inappropriately placed in academic programs, such as being “erroneously diagnosed and referred to special education programs because of their lack of English language proficiency”. This huge misplacement shows how schools equate not speaking English proficiently as being a disability, which is largely ignorant and detrimental. Not only does this perpetuate the institutional racism that already exists, but it also hinders Southeast Asian students from receiving the education that they deserve, ultimately, preventing them from reaching their potential as students.

Learning about the low statistics of Southeast Asian students enrolled in colleges in “A Dream Denied”, particularly for Vietnamese-Americans, painfully hit home for me, especially because I am Vietnamese-American. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, I was accustomed to the tremendous diversity of students in my elementary school, middle school and high school, so I never really questioned ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or other factors that contribute to academic success. I never questioned my own privilege as a Southeast Asian attending private school. I never questioned why the instances of me meeting another Vietnamese-American in school were largely infrequent. Because my parents, who came as refugees to the U.S. during the Vietnam War, did not get the chance to complete college, they always emphasized the importance of education for me and my siblings. Thus, there was no question about me going to college – it was just something that I naively believed was normal for everyone in the U.S.

As a Southeast Asian American, I am surprised about the statistics of this population in higher education and am disappointed in myself for not realizing this truth sooner. However, I believe that this shows how information presented about Southeast Asian American students in schools is not being discussed about enough, and when it is mentioned, it is not addressing the main issue that not all Asian American students are the same, especially Southeast Asian students who are largely underrepresented. There exists a tremendous diversity between Asian American communities, and this homogenous pile that they are put under makes it impossible for those who are “hidden” in the aggregated data to receive the resources necessary to achieve academic success. Engaging in more discussions about this subject and presenting more accurate information on the experiences about Southeast Asian students can help dismantle the myth that all Asian American students are high academic achievers and can help create policies that will benefit the groups who are disadvantaged from these generalizations.

Um, Khatharya. A Dream Denied: Educational Experiences of Southeast Asian American Youth: Issues and Recommendations. Washington, DC: Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, 2003.


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