by Manlia Xiong
On March 31, 2015, I had the chance to conduct a phone interview with Thuy Vo Dang, Archivist for the Orange County and Southeast Asian Archive (OC & SEAA) Center; a part of the University of California, Irvine (UCI) Libraries. With the opening of the new OC & SEAA Center on May 13, 2015, the center will provide both physical and virtual spaces for intellectual discovery and innovative research for UCI faculty, students, and the community at large. To learn how you can support the OC & SEAA Center, please visit http://ocseaa.lib.uci.edu/support.html.
Manlia Xiong (MX): Hi, Thuy. Thank you for sharing some of your time with me this afternoon. May you, please introduce yourself and briefly describe your role with the OC & SEAA collection?
Thuy Vo Dang (TVD): Thank you for having me. My title is Archivist for the Southeast Asian Archive (SEAA) and Regional History in University of California, Irvine (UCI) Libraries. My primary role involves collection development in the SEAA and OC regional history collections. I set priorities for organizations’ and individuals’ records we want to collect from. From the SEAA side, my role overlaps with bibliographer responsibilities of curating a cohesive collection on the populations from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. They include a wide range of disciplines and multiple formats from audiovisual materials, to dissertations, theses, serials, and monographs. Also, I cultivate donor relationships in the community by being a liaison to community organizations and individuals. For example, we had received some records from the Khmer Girls in Action of Long Beach. These are some of the community outreach I do.
With the opening of the OC & SEAA Center, my main responsibility is the management of the space and building out new programs to introduce our collections to users. We have a really great space for instruction, so I’m trying to build that up more going forward. Then, we also have an oral history recording studio. One of my future projects is to build oral history support services. Not only do we collect and preserve oral histories, but we want to promote and empower partons to do their own documentation and record their histories here. We provide the reference materials, best practices, guides, manuals, examples of documentation forms, equipment, and documents that they can use to do the oral histories themselves. We have the equipment here, and they can come use or check them out. This sums up what I’m currently doing in my role in the UCI Libraries.
MX: Wow! Your role and responsibilities is another great example of the many hats a Librarian wears. This comes to show how we never do the same thing day in and day out and are constantly challenged in new ways.
TVD: Yes, we are.
MX: Now, could you tell me a little bit on how the SEAA collection got started? How was it built? Who are the particular people who played a role in the development or change of the collection? What role or mission does the collection address?
TVD: The SEAA is almost 30 years old. The SEAA was founded in 1987. I’d say this is a really great example of a community based archive. The catalyst for the formation of the SEAA did not come from the UCI Libraries, or as a response to the curriculum or to a faculty member’s research. Instead, the motivation came from the SEA community. As the SEA community developed in and around the county, the SEA community approached the University to document the history. Essentially it was the Vietnamese community lead by Professor Pham Cao Duong and Vu-Dinh Minh who had approached the University concerning the need to document the growing number of SEA in OC, and at that time there were no departments or units interested. However, UCI Libraries did have a research librarian who was in charge of the OC subject area. Her name is Anne Frank. She was willing to start building that relationship and collection.
As there was little funding for the new collection, initial materials were collected by donation. In 1993, relying on the community’s support the SEAA Advisory Board was formed by several key individuals including one person who is still very active named Prany Sananikone (he is currently our SEA ambassador), Professor Pham Cao Duong, Dr. Bui MInh Duc, and librarian Angela Yang. All these individuals really contributed to the phase of outreaching and building our collection via gift monographs. So, they solicited materials from the community, organizations, and individuals to send in or donate their records for the archive. From there, the collection organically grew
As the collection grew, it expanded to include the experiences of SEA refugees and immigrants all over the United States. However, the special focus on OC and California remains. It has become the mission of the SEAA to preserve and document the social, cultural, religious, political, and economic life of SEA Americans, beginning with the exodus from Southeast Asia through the process of resettlement, and to transformations in the present and future.
MX: It’s amazing to hear how many people were passionately involved in the construction and development of the collection. Moreover, to hear how the collection had become an asset to the OC & SEA community there.
Additionally, may you please describe the physical facilities that house the OC & SEAA collection? Overall, what makes OC & SEAA collection significant or unique compare to other collection?
TVD: At first, Anne kept all the items donated and collected in her office. As the collection grew, it went from a few drawers in a file cabinet, to the quarters in the basement of the UCI Libraries where the materials were housed and used with ease. It was, in the late 1990s, that the collection moved into its own reading room. The reading room was about a 600 square foot reading room located on the third floor of the Langson Library, which was once called the Main Library. In that space, the collection had a breathing room to grow and soon it outgrew that space.
In 2007, Anne retired and that was the same time of the budget crisis for the University of California. So, her position was not filled and another librarian was given the SEAA as an one more additional area of responsibility to oversee. The librarian was Christina Woo. Woo did a great job in maintaining the bibliographic responsibilities of the collection and also did some outreach. She also developed a relationship with the special collections department and a road show to take out to the community. These were some of the things to help stabilize the collection within those years.
In 2012, this position, the Archivist for the SEAA and Regional History was developed and I was appointed in 2013. We started strategizing on how we could grow both the collection and space, so that our users can start here as the beginning point for them to explore this important history. With strong support from our University Librarian, Lorelei Tanji, within a nine month period, we were able to build out the new OC & SEAA Center, which is a 2,800 square-feet space located across from Langson Library in the Libraries Gateway Study Center.
I believe what makes the collection unique is we are part of Special Collections and Archives; in a sense we are a library within a library. However, with our archival collections described and made accessible through the Online Archive of California (OAC) and with functions such as circulating books, we are able to provide reference. When we are all fully operational in May, we will have more resources that will be very unique to our collection, in particular through our commitment to expanding community engagement.
MX: Can you tell me how is the OC & SEAA collection organized? What various subcollections, formats, and unique items are included in the collection?
TVD: The Orange County and Southeast Asian Archive collections are either organized by creators, donors, organizations, and in chronological order of materials that have been accessioned and processed into the collections. The collections are not organized by subgroups or ethics groups.
One thing I want to mention is a strong partnership we have with the Vietnamese American Oral History Project (VAOHP), which began in 2011 and came out of the Department of Asian American Studies of UCI. The VAOHP objective is to capture the oral histories of first generation Vietnamese Americans who have memories of life in Vietnam, the Vietnam War, and the displacement and resettlement of refugees from Vietnam. The project plays an instrumental role in documenting their histories and legacies in order to preserve their stories for future generations. This is a born-digital oral history project. It began as an audio recording project, and now the next phase is incorporating video Interviews. This digital repository has been a really great model of how a library partnership early on can help facilitate quick access to our collection. The turnaround time for many of the oral history is between two to six months, which means that the interview is fully recorded, transcribed, translated, and made available via UCISpace. UCISpace @ the Libraries is part of a suite of digital scholarship services offered by the UCI Libraries and is a service for the UCI community to publish, manage, and preserve diverse kinds of research output. UCISpace is our depository where we archive and make our oral history accessible to the community. This is an example of a subcollection within the UCI libraries that I believe really shows a great model of University and community partnership, as well as inter-campus collaboration.
MX: May you share with me what programs are available to researchers, visitors, and community education?
TVD: In addition to the VAOHP as I had mentioned, the OC & SEAA collection has a strong collaboration with faculty on our campus. I want to mention one of our research faculty, Linda Trinh Vo, in particular. Linda is an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies here at UCI. She’s been with us for about 15 years and she has really been a great ally to the Southeast Asian Archive by embedding the collection into her curriculum, so her students may use the materials in their coursework. Drawing upon her field of expertise, she is also instrumental in expanding the collection through the advocacy work she performs in the SEA community. Moreover, she is also the Lead Faculty Advisor for “The Southeast Asian Archive Access Project,” that developed Documenting the Southeast Asian American Experience (SEAAdoc).
The SEAAdoc project is an educational resource of the SEAA at the UCI Libraries. The project brings together the core materials for elementary, secondary, and community college students who want to learn more about the immigrants and refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
In addition to the programs that are available through the OC & SEAA Center, we also have the SEAA Anne Frank Visiting Researcher Award. The purpose of the award is for faculty, students and independent researchers like filmmakers and writers who live outside of OC and are not affiliated with UCI to use the research collections in the SEAA.
MX: These are some wonderful programs that you had described. I hope, as we publish this article, it will help bring some prospect visitors, donors, and researchers to the OC & SEAA and Regional History Center.
TVD: Most definitely!
MX: Lastly, if someone is interested in visiting the collection, where is the center located, what are the hours and days of operation, and whom should they contact if they have additional questions about the collection and center?
TVD: Sure! The OC & SEAA Center is on the first floor of the Libraries Gateway Study Center, next door to Langson Library, on the UCI campus. We are open Monday through Friday, from 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m., and by appointment. My email is email@example.com and my office number is (949) 824-1878. An alternative contact here is Jackson Bui, who is our Technical and Access Services Assistant. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and his office number is (949) 824-5269.
Editing assistance provided by Alyssa Jocson Porter.
by Melissa I. Cardenas-Dow
This feature essay on an Asian/Pacific American library leader focuses on David Mao, currently Deputy Librarian of Congress. When I initiated the e-mail conversation in late February 2015, I had just gotten the news that David had just been appointed Law Librarian of Congress. I sent some questions to David, focusing on his background and his thoughts on library leadership and diversity. This article provides an edited version of David’s responses.
Melissa Cardenas-Dow (MICD): Tell us a little bit about yourself, your career to date?
David Mao (DM): I was born in New York City, but raised in New Jersey. After graduating with a B.A. in international affairs from the George Washington University, I earned a J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center. I then practiced law for several years before returning to graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in library science at the Catholic University of America. My first library position was at Georgetown, followed by several library positions at the international law firm Covington and Burling. From there I moved to the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress. In 2010 I transferred to the Law Library of Congress as Deputy Law Librarian. I was appointed Law Librarian of Congress in January 2012 and in January of this year, I was named Deputy Librarian of Congress.
MICD: What ways do you see yourself as a diverse professional?
DM: I interpret diverse professional to mean all the different facets that an individual brings to the workplace. For me, that includes being of Chinese descent and being born and raised in the United States. I also have gained tremendously from extended living, studying and traveling in Asia. Professionally, I have worked in academia, the private sector and public service. The sum of all these experiences has influenced my work ethic, approach to business and outlook on the future.
MICD: Please describe an instance in which diversity played a beneficial role in your library work.
DM: Over the years, I have interviewed numerous candidates for library positions. As noted above, I have worked professionally in various sectors (academic, private and public) and thus have been able to understand better how applicants’ experiences in those areas may relate to the particular position sought.
MICD: Has it been challenging to move up the leadership ladder? How did you make the move from middle to upper management?
DM: Moving up the leadership ladder has been challenging just like achieving any other goal that one sets out for oneself. It takes hard work, steady progress and commitment. Throughout my career I have looked for and taken advantage of opportunities both within and external to my work organizations. These opportunities included lending assistance on projects, making connections with others and seeking feedback.
MICD: How does diversity influence your leadership style?
DM: As a result of my various experiences, I welcome and seek different perspectives in how to approach challenges and opportunities.
MICD: What attributes do you look for in future leaders?
DM: The basic qualities I look for in a future leader are intelligence and good interpersonal skills. Talented individuals will have the ability to innovate using available resources and to find opportunities in times of change. Two skills I count as important in a future leader includes technical know-how and the knowledge of how to apply technology appropriately to areas throughout an organization.
MICD: Are these the same skills, talents and qualities you recommend diverse professionals develop as they seek new leadership positions? Please explain further.
DM: These are only a small sampling of the skills, talents and qualities that a professional should have! Of course, every leader has a unique set of aptitudes that he or she cultivates and applies to the organization. Part of professional development means acquiring those skills, knowledge and abilities that will make an individual the right “fit” for a particular position or organization.
MICD: What advice would you give to young professionals, especially those from diverse backgrounds?
DM: Create networks, not only within your organization but also externally. Join professional associations (both local and national—and perhaps even international) and attend conferences to give yourself the widest possible view of your industry. Find your niche within that industry and know—and be able to express—how you can bring value to the organization.
MICD: How about advice for midcareer professionals, especially those who are interested in moving into higher management?
DM: As I mentioned, professional associations are great for learning more about your industry. These associations also typically have leadership positions in their committees, special task forces and boards. Midcareer professionals interested in management positions in their organization can demonstrate leadership on one of these groups and transfer their experience to the workplace.
MICD: What message would you give to library administrators regarding the value of diverse leaders and how they might grow under those leaders within their organizations?
DM: The strength of a high performing organization is in its people and I equate staff diversity with an organization’s ability to grow, change and make progress. The more varied the staff and managers are, the better chance the organization has to get past the status quo. Diversity in staff translates to diversity in management if the organization cultivates its leaders from within its own workforce. In every issue and action, an organization should integrate the development of a diverse workforce into its strategic plan in order to succeed.
Editing assistance provided by Molly Higgins. Many thanks to Eugenia Beh for facilitating this interview.
APALA member Rebecca Martin brings us the fourth essay on our advocacy fatigue mini-series. Advocacy is a significant part of our continuing development in the field of librarianship, a helping profession. It follows that self-care and renewal is also a significant part of our professional growth. However, finding renewal by stepping away temporarily isn’t always easy or feasible. Rebecca’s reflective piece raises some questions, and solutions, concerning such situations.
In anticipation of APALA’s 35th Anniversary & Symposium, we take a closer look at the very human aspect of advocacy work—fatigue.
~ Melissa I. Cardenas-Dow, APALA Web Content Sub-committee Chair, 2012-Present
For those of us engaged in social justice work that is intimately tied to our own identities, taking a break to avoid advocacy fatigue isn’t always easy — or at times even possible.
My own experience working at Community Change, Inc. tells me that anti-racism work follows us home: it can fuel our dinner table conversations; it can disrupt our sleep; and it can wear us down. Anti-racism work is an ongoing process that continually deals with oppression on personal, interpersonal, cultural and institutional levels. It is not the type of work that has easy “wins.” It has daily, sometimes hourly, roadblocks. And for those of us who identify or are perceived as individuals of color, we do not have the privilege of easily taking a break from feeling, facing and experiencing racism.
In light of this reality, taking a break might mean stepping back to gain new perspective. Maybe it means taking stock of what experiences brought us to this work in the first place, and which books, writers, and organizations initially influenced us to take action. Perhaps it means reflection on the future as a means of revitalization.
My own approach is to imagine what an anti-racist society looks like and how we can work toward that goal collectively. I try to imagine how I want to contribute to that future: what role do I want to play? What skills and tools do I need to fulfill that role? Over the years, as my interests, skills and relationships have evolved, so has that vision.
As I’ve advanced in my experience as an anti-racist activist, I’ve undertaken continuing education opportunities just as I’ve done in my career as an academic librarian. In both cases, clarifying goals, acquiring new skills and learning about new tools has revitalized my approach and my interest in moving forward. The same approach can apply to any advocacy, activist or social justice work.
Some of the personal/professional/disciplinary goals I am working on during my current phase of fatigue include:
Fatigued or not, I always seek guidance and inspiration from my peers, colleagues and community members. I keep an eye on the What’s Your Normal series from APALA and seek new avenues for influencing diversity in academic libraries. I have also participated in local discussions about critical librarianship and what it means to be a “whole-self” librarian.
I think if we can view fatigue as part of our cycle of renewal, we can emerge revitalized and better poised to serve ourselves and our communities.
I’ll end by asking you to share what approaches to renewal you use in the comments below, and to consider the following quote from fellow librarian Audre Lorde from 1982:
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives… Our struggles are particular, but we are not alone. We are not perfect, but we are stronger and wiser than the sum of our errors.”
Rebecca Martin is an academic law librarian at Boston University and a volunteer librarian at the Yvonne Pappenheim Library on Racism at Community Change, Inc. She is interested in the role of anti-racism education in LIS curricula and on the Internet and the role of law libraries in access to justice and information initiatives.
Editing assistance provided by Jaena Rae Cabrera and Melissa Cardenas-Dow.
In February 2015, APALA Web Content Sub-committee member Melissa Cardenas-Dow corresponded with current APALA President Eileen K. Bosch. We spoke about APALA’s upcoming 35th Anniversary & Symposium, the current state of APALA, and the aspirations of APALA leaders and members for the organization. The following article is the third of a three-part mini-series highlighting APALA’s 35th Anniversary. It also provides an edited version of our conversation.
Early bird registration for APALA 35th Anniversary & Symposium is currently underway until April 3, 2015.
Melissa Cardenas-Dow (MICD): Please briefly tell us about yourself and your position(s) in APALA, especially your role in planning APALA’s 35th Anniversary celebration. How long have you been a part of APALA?
Eileen K. Bosch (EKB): I am the current President of APALA, Chair of the APALA 35th Fundraising Committee and a member of the Steering Committee for the APALA 35th Anniversary & Symposium. I have also served APALA as Vice President (2013-2014), Executive Board Member-at-Large (2010-2012), Chair of the Finance & Fundraising Committee (2011-2014), Public Relations Committee (2011), Literary Award Adult Fiction Committee (2011), Mentoring Committee (2010/11), JCLC/APALA Fundraising (2011-12), and APALA representative for the Spectrum Leadership Institute (2011-2012). I am also responsible for overseeing and coordinating all APALA activities, including dividing direct responsibility among the Executive Director, Vice President, and all Executive Board officers, as well as acting as the spokesperson for APALA within and outside ALA. Since APALA is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, I have also been overseeing the overall planning and coordination of all of APALA’s programs and events throughout the APALA 35th Anniversary & Symposium and 2015 ALA Annual Conference. As such, I have been working closely with APALA 35th Co-Chairs, Jade Alburo, Gary Colmenar, and Florante Ibanez, as well as Ven Basco, Executive Director, Janet Clarke, Vice-President, and Dora Ho, Treasurer.
MICD: Let’s think about the future of APALA. What do you think APALA aspires to accomplish in the future, both in the short-term and long-term?
EKB: I think that one of APALA’s aspirations is to increase our visibility and recognition within the ALA community, specifically when it comes to issues related to API communities and librarians. To this end, we have been working in cultivating leaders from within APALA who value and practice coalition-building with ALA and the other ethnic caucuses to benefit the API community at large.
MICD: What are some of the efforts we are currently performing, so APALA can achieve these future aspirations?
EKB: We have been prioritizing our work and focusing on addressing some of the goals delineated on the APALA’s Visionary Framework for the Future: APALA’s Strategic Plan. Many of these goals needed to be placed on the fast track to help our association move forward. For example, we have been targeting the completion of an electronic policies and procedures handbook to be distributed to incoming officers and committee chairs at the annual conference. This handbook will not only facilitate the transition process between previous and new leadership, but it would also allow opportunities for aspiring and seasoned leaders to experience a variety of job assignments, projects and development processes. As a small association, we need to focus our efforts on growing and developing leadership to build a network intent on practicing and realizing our core values and vision.
MICD: In the previous article, Ven Basco, APALA’s current Executive Director talked in great length about the need for APALA and its members to be much more visible. What do you think about this? How does more outreach, more communication, more visibility play a role in the future aspirations and empowerment of APALA and its members?
EKB: I think that true leadership involves more than day-to-day operational work. It includes being true and enthusiastic about creating visibility for your group, getting your message across, and sharing your accomplishments. Personally, I think this is the way we can create a leadership support network that builds on itself, make our organization stronger. If the leaders of our association are excited and enthusiastic about creating a better tomorrow for APALA and its members, other members will want to join their leaders to move our association forward. Furthermore, by increasing our visibility, we can recruit new members and attract more sponsors to fund our scholarships and programs. However, in order to do this, we need to have a good communication and outreach plan to be able to put our message out there and let our members know what is going on and how they can help. For example, I don’t know any other APALA members in Ohio. So for me, being able to connect to other APALA members and be able to communicate during committee meetings allows me an opportunity to learn what’s going on and feel connected with other members across the nation.
MICD: What about in terms of specifically promoting and advocating on behalf of API library communities and patrons?
EKB: Currently, APALA collaborates with the American Indian Library Association (AILA) on a joint project, “Talk Story: Sharing Stories, Sharing Culture.” This is a literacy program that reaches out to Asian Pacific American (APA) and American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) children and their families. The program celebrates and explores Asian Pacific American (APA) and American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) stories through books, oral traditions, and art to provide an interactive, enriching experience. Children and their families can connect to rich cultural activities through Talk Story in their homes, libraries, and communities. Personally, it would be great if we team up with other ethnic associations or organizations to create library programs that could bring APALA closer to API communities.
MICD: What do you see as APALA’s future collaborative endeavors with ALA and other ethnic affiliates and groups? At the moment, we continue to hear a lot about Talk Story. Are there other collaborative efforts that we are cultivating?
EKB: This past year, I have been very happy to see strong camaraderie and partnership emerge between the new leaders of APALA, AILA, BCALA (Black Caucus of the American Library Association), CALA (Chinese American Librarians Association), and REFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking). Some examples of the collaborative work that I can think of at the moment are: our joint efforts in creating an initial Board of Directors for the Joint Council of Librarians of Color (JCLC). This group will work together on the bylaws to be able to incorporate JCLC as a non-profit organization. Another example is participating in CALA’s President Program at ALA Annual 2015. The program “Partnership beyond CALA: Training Leaders of Color for Action” will address how we can work together on training our leaders. This year APALA President’s Program, “Global Roots, Local Identities: Asian International Adoption and Advocacy” will be co-sponsored by ALA’s Video Round Table (VRT). APALA Program Committee Co-Chairs, Janet Clarke (Vice President) and Peter Spyers-Duran, are organizing a great panel featuring the new film “Geographies of Kinship: International Asian Adoption” by award-winning filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem. The panelists are: Dr. Cathy Choy, a historian working on Asian international adoption, and Maria Taesil Hudson Carpenter, a Korean adoptee librarian-activist and APALA member, who has done extensive work at several Korean adoption centers in the Boston and L.A. areas. In addition, we have also teamed up with APA writer and social justice activist, Paul Ocampo, who has received a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission Individual Arts to develop a collaborative program at the Manilatown Heritage Foundation during the APALA 35th Anniversary & Symposium. The program will include panelists from APALA, poets, and artists to address how they are invested in incorporating history into their work.
MICD: A great deal of effort and planning is being done to ensure that APALA 35th Anniversary & Symposium will be a great success. How do you see it serving APALA’s future goals and aspirations?
EKB: I think that the fact that we are planning and organizing APALA’s 35th Anniversary & Symposium can only help us in our efforts to raise APALA’s visibility and bring more exposure for our association, our members, and our advocacy work in serving API communities. Another good thing to account for is that the challenges associated with the planning, coordinating, and organizing of the symposium in addition to our regular programs and events for 2015 ALA Annual have only helped our association become stronger. As an example, several of our EB officers, Committee Chairs, and APALA members have accepted the call to wear multiple hats either by chairing or serving on several committees to make APALA’s 35th Anniversary a great celebration! As APALA President, I couldn’t be any more humbled and honored with the work of our volunteers, the support of our partners and sponsors, and the achievements of our association! The commitment of our members and partners to go the extra mile for our association just simply warms my heart! This is a pure testament that no matter what, we are growing new leaders and building a network to establish our core values and vision.
MICD: What idea or impression do you hope attendees will get out of the APALA 35th Anniversary & Symposium?
EKB: To get started, attendees will have a great opportunity to see and listen to Valarie Kaur, our keynote speaker. She is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, civil rights lawyer, and interfaith leader who centers her work on storytelling for social change. She has led campaigns on hate crimes, racial profiling, immigration detention, marriage equality, solitary confinement, and the open Internet. Attendees will also have the chance to learn new ideas from a diverse pool of programs, panels, and posters related to libraries, librarians, advocacy, and API communities. In addition, folks will be able to network during the community fair and learn from the many local organizations in San Francisco serving API communities. Since the theme for the symposium reflects the work we have accomplished during our 35 years of existence and continue to do, it is safe to say that attendees will have a great symposium to attend!
MICD: Any closing remarks for our readers?
EKB: As a librarian of mixed race heritage, I have never felt so welcomed, embraced, and enthusiastic like I am in APALA. Our association is not big compared to others, but there’s something about our smallness that promotes a sense of camaraderie, kindness, togetherness, good-fellowship, unselfishness, high-mindedness, industriousness, and forward-thinking in our members and those around us – APALA is awesome!
Questions written and interview conducted by Melissa I. Cardenas-Dow. Editing and writing support provided by Manlia Xiong.
My parents were always pushing for all of my siblings and me to “go to school and get an education.” Being the “good” daughter that I was, I did what was expected of me. I never once questioned my parents and their motives behind their views on education. I just went to school and got good grades. I grew up in Long Beach, California, where we have the largest concentration of Cambodians outside of Southeast Asia. I assumed that many of my ethnic peers were heeding educational demands from their parents and family. I mean, my parents came from a war-torn country and migrated to the United States, hoping to provide a better life for their children. In theory, this sounds like many immigrants stories, from various origins and backgrounds. Being first-generation Cambodian American, I wanted to rise to the occasion.
Finishing college was always a given. People got degrees all the time, right? It never occurred to me that, as I breezed through my undergraduate years, the majority of my ethnic peers did not graduate from high school. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2006-2010, “only 13 percent of Cambodian-Americans in Los Angeles County have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 47 percent of Chinese residents and 44 percent of Caucasians” (quoted from Hinojosa, 2014). I was made more aware of these alarming statistics when PBS broadcasted a documentary episode called “Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town.” In the episode, investigative reporter Maria Hinojosa discusses how Asian Americans are the best-educated and highest-income ethnic group in the United States. They are often referred to as the “model minority,” suggesting that all Asian Americans are successful in school and in life. But Southeast Asian Americans have some of the lowest high school completion rates in the nation. The documentary notes that 35.5 percent of Cambodian adults do not have a high school diploma or equivalent (Hinojosa, 2014). I was floored. I asked myself, how could this be? Many of my friends graduated high school like I did. Where did these statistics come from? As I continued my educational journey through college and graduate school, I reflected on my background and I used it as a catalyst to further my studies.
I came to understand that I fell into the stereotypes that are associated with mainstream Asian Americans. My family came to the U.S. to give their children better opportunities. I had an educational standard I adhered to because of the expectations of my parents. I needed to succeed. What I failed to recognize, however, is the fact that as Cambodian American, I am not part of mainstream Asian American communities. Growing up, I felt I had to defend or point out that I wasn’t Chinese or Filipino. Oftentimes, when I corrected people about my ethnicity, they didn’t readily recognize or know where Cambodia is. Unlike other established Asian American communities, Cambodian Americans have a history that is relatively new, as most Cambodian immigrants arrived only in the late 1970s. Wallitt (2008) stresses this point further: “While most modern immigration to the United States consists of voluntary migrants in search of better socioeconomic lives for themselves and their families, Cambodian Americans, in contrast, were refugees who were dislocated by genocide, starvation, and war.” The “elite” of the country—the wealthy, educated Khmer, including those who were trained at passing on Cambodian tradition and knowledge—were executed, as were their families. Those murdered included the intellectuals, teachers, artists, dancers, writers, doctors, politicians, and monks (Wallitt, 2008).
I did see fewer Cambodian Americans as I attended college. When I started graduate school, I was the only Southeast Asian student in my department at Illinois.
There is a great generational gap that also divides the community. Along with having to assimilate into a new culture, there is a silence that stretches between older and younger Cambodians. The war is something that many older Cambodians do not discuss with the younger generation. The older group tends to hold on to their cultural customs and the younger group is intent on learning American ways. This makes it hard for both sides to come to an understanding. This rift between generations affects the children of refugees and, in turn, their educational goals. In “Cambodian Americans and Education: Understanding the Intersections Between Cultural Tradition and U.S. Schooling,” Akiba (2010) notes that Cambodian Americans have unique sociohistorical and political characteristics and are often associated with academic underachievements. Wallitt (2008) also points out that “what is further complicating the situation is the parents’ lack of knowledge about the American educational system.” An American Educational Research Association article published in December 2007, written by Ngo and Lee, explores the struggles of Southeast Asian groups and finds that many refugees had lower English proficiency, less experience with formal education, and also fewer transferrable skills. Ngo and Lee (2007) further assert that most Cambodian American students in K-12 schools today are born and raised in the United States and many struggle with language learning. Compared to Vietnamese Americans and Hmong Americans, Cambodian Americans appear to score lower on standardized tests and earn relatively low grade point averages (Chhuon, Hudley & Macias, 2006). Poverty has been identified as a particularly significant barrier to academic success for Cambodia American students (Ngo & Lee, 2007). “Cambodian-American College Students: Cultural Values and Multiple Worlds,” written by Chhuon, Hudley, and Macias in 2006, reviews literature on the reality of underachievement of the Cambodian American population. In the article, the authors cite various sources and found that “[p]olicymakers usually overlook Cambodian students as a unique ethnic group, attending instead to the positive statistics that aggregate Asian-American students into a single group of successful students” (Chhuon, Hudley & Macias, 2006).
I speak for myself when I say that my parents’ emphasis on education was my foundation. I am disheartened to learn that many of my people have not attained the same results. Growing up in Long Beach, California, I recall there were a lot of people like me. We all went to school, shopped at our local Cambodian grocery stores, dined at the same ethnic restaurants, and yet who knew what really happened in the privacy of their own homes. For as long as I can remember, my parents kept telling me that I needed an education to improve my lot in life. I listened to their advice intently and took it. At the same time, I did see fewer Cambodian Americans as I attended college. When I started graduate school, I was the only Southeast Asian student in my department at Illinois.
As I continued on with my studies, I felt the growing need to give back to and empower my community. Because I was beginning to see the impact and lack of education standards within my community, I decided to be committed to at least trying to improve the image of Cambodian Americans. I focused my studies in archives and public librarianship. By being ensconced in the public library sphere, I am able to work with and assess the needs of the community. I wish to bring a ray of light and hope to those who are not able to help themselves and to continue to share my story and experiences. In a Long Beach Press Telegram article, Dulaney (2015) writes that “in 2010, the Chancellor’s Office of the CSU (California State University system) brought together Asian-American Pacific Islander community leaders to talk about strategies for reaching young people. The result was the Journey to Success program to educate AAPI students and parents about college and financial aid.” It is encouraging to know that universities like California State University, Long Beach are now acknowledging specific, unique issues faced by Southeast Asian Americans by initiating changes and are lobbying support for future educational needs of Cambodian American students.
Christina Nhek, M.S., 2014
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Graduate School of Library & Information Science
Editing assistance provided by Molly Higgins and Alyssa Jocson Porter.
Akiba, D. (2010). Cambodian Americans and education: Understanding the intersections between cultural tradition and U.S. schooling. Educational Forum, 74(4), 328-333. doi: 10.1080/00131725.2010.507117
Chhuon, V., & Hudley, C. (2011). Ethnic and panethnic Asian American identities: Contradictory perceptions of Cambodian students in urban schools. The Urban Review, 43(5), 681-701. doi: 10.1007/s11256-010-0172-8
Chhuon, V., Hudley, C., & Macias, R. (2006). Cambodian-American college students: Cultural values and multiple worlds. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from ERIC: http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED492597
Dulaney, J. (2015, Jan. 19). Why Cal State Long Beach officials are lobbying support for Cambodian students. Long Beach Press Telegram. Retrieved from: http://www.presstelegram.com/social-affairs/20150119/why-cal-state-long-beach-officials-are-lobbying-support-for-cambodian-students
Hinojosa, M. (Anchor, Executive Producer & Managing Editor). (2014, Nov. 6). Pass or fail in Cambodia town [Television series episode]. In America by The Numbers with Maria Hinojosa. Boston, MA: WGBH.
Ngo, B., & Lee, S. J. (2007). Complicating the image of model minority success: A review of Southeast Asian American education. Review of Educational Research, 77(4), 415-453. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4624907
Wallitt, R. (2008). Cambodian invisibility: Students lost between the “achievement gap” and the “model minority.” Multicultural Perspectives, 10(1), 3-9. doi: 10.1080/15210960701869298