I am Hmong American. I came to this country as a refugee. I was a first-generation college student. I was a commuter student, juggling the demands of working, going to school, and taking care of my parents and siblings.
My parents, having had no formal education, didn’t know how to maneuver the American educational system. Though they gave me all they could, they didn’t know how to access tutors or how to help me prepare for or complete college.
Today, I reflect on the opportunities, mentors and luck that have led me into a public service career and to the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We are a broad-based governmentwide initiative, housed in the U.S. Department of Education, working to improve the quality of life for AAPIs.
Now the fastest-growing racial group in the country, AAPIs are expected to increase from 20 million to 47 million by 2060. Unfortunately, AAPIs face the “model minority myth” – the notion that all are well-educated, affluent and self-sufficient. In reality, the AAPI community faces unique challenges, including in education.
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Forty percent of Hmong Americans do not complete high school, and just 14 percent have a bachelor’s degree, less than half the national average.
So how do we reach out to these underserved student populations? One important way is through Minority Serving Institutions – educational institutions that have high minority populations. Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions have a significant underserved AAPI student population.
These schools provide students with culturally relevant services, curricular and academic program development, and resource and research development, which assist in retaining and graduating students. Such institutions make up 4 percent of colleges and universities, but serve nearly 36 percent of all AAPI students.
Today, I have the privilege of speaking at a leading Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution with the highest population of Hmong American students – Fresno State – as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Seventh Annual Back-to-School Bus Tour: “Opportunity Across America.”
We will talk about the importance of higher education for the AAPI community and mobilize administrators, faculty, and students to be part of a larger effort to raise awareness of opportunities at colleges that can serve their needs.
The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is committed to highlighting federal programs and grants made available for these schools, and hosting webinars and other resources to explain these opportunities.
President Barack Obama entered office in 2009 with a vision for improving our education system to advance our children’s opportunity and success.
This includes efforts to address the dropout crisis, improve student achievement, and increase graduation rates; expand equity in education through stronger schools; ensure all students achieve high standards that prepare them for college and career; and safeguarding the right of all students to a world-class education.
Thanks to the hard work of educators, state and local leaders, parents and students, the nation has made significant educational progress over the last eight years. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high, with all groups making progress, and students of color closing gaps.
The nation has a new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed with bipartisan support in December 2015, that offers the chance to reclaim the promise of a well-rounded education for every student. More individuals now have access to programs to offset the rising costs of higher education, including expanding Pell Grants and making student debt more manageable.
More students and families have access to the information they need to make the best choice about college –from easier and now earlier financial aid to the next generation of college transparency with tools like College Scorecard.
Today, more students are graduating from college than ever, and student loan defaults, delinquencies and forbearances are on the decline. And more students have access to pre-K, free community college, and computer science classes.
To build on our prosperity and competitiveness as a nation, the administration has focused on making a positive difference for students and delivering on the promise of a world-class education for every child.
Doua Thor is executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, housed in the U.S. Department of Education.