A better understanding of Asian students’ needs

The Pao Arts Center is a joint initiative of Bunker Hill Community College and the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Community colleges reaching out to address the needs of Asian/Pacific Islander (API) students face some unique challenges, such as significant differences within that population, a lack of leadership role models and inadequate data.

In 2016-17, about 6 percent of community college students were Asian and 0.3 percent were Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, according to the U.S. Education Department.

Despite the low proportions compared to other racial and ethnic groups at community colleges, education advocates see the potential for growth. The Asian American population increased by 46 percent and the Pacific Islander population rose 40 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the U.S. population as a whole grew by 10 percent during that decade, according to the Center for American Progress.

More data needed

There’s significant diversity and complexity within the API label, which makes it difficult for colleges to understand the unique needs and backgrounds of the various subgroups and to develop services that respond to their needs, says Seattle Colleges Chancellor Shouan Pan, who is also president of the National Asian/Pacific Islander Council (NAPIC), a group affiliated with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

Pan, who grew up in China, notes that while some API subgroups do very well academically and have good English language skills – Chinese and Indian students, for example – others, such as Pacific Islanders, are more likely to be economically disadvantaged and more academically challenged.

There are also big differences among recent immigrants, U.S.-born students, refugees and international students. One commonality among Asian students is their reticence, which can be compounded by lack of English proficiency, Pan notes.

“They tend to be a little withdrawn, quieter and reserved. They don’t speak out often in class,” he says.

At Seattle Colleges, Asians comprise about 21 percent of students, but “it’s quite complex,” Pan says. When students enroll in college, they typically don’t identify their cultural background beyond the general API designation, unless they do so voluntarily.

“We are at the beginning stages of acknowledging the complexity and looking at the data with the goal of setting a baseline,” Pan says. Colleges need disaggregated data to determine how to better target services to API subgroups and develop a baseline of performance data.

A leadership gap

Less than 2 percent of community college presidents nationwide are Asian, and efforts to increase that number run up against stereotypes, too. While Asian faculty and employees have a reputation for being hardworking, dependable and good at their subject matter, Pan says, they also are sometimes viewed as less articulate and weaker in communication skills, which can make them appear less competent.

“We say women have a glass ceiling. For Asians, it’s a bamboo ceiling, whether intentional or not,” Pan says. “Sometimes it’s self-imposed.”

“As a nation, we need to realize leaders come from all backgrounds,” he adds.

College organizations have a role to play in identifying potential leaders and encouraging institutions to provide mentors for them, Pan says, and boards of trustees should be more open in their hiring processes. When considering finalists for the presidency, for example, boards need to understand the strengths of Asian candidates and “how stereotyping can get in the way of decision making.”

And when APIs have achieved leadership roles, he says, “they have an obligation to be a mentor, to be a role model for other Asians.”

Building the API leadership pipeline is a critical goal of NAPIC, says Naomi Story, the council’s executive director.

NAPIC co-sponsors a pre-conference workshop at the AACC annual convention on leadership development. It also works with other groups, such as Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), organizations promoting college leadership development for African-Americans and Hispanics, the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund and the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Getting good data is also a key goal of NAPIC, Story says, along with advocating for API students, API-serving institutions and for the continuation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISI) program.

A sense of belonging

Portland Community College (PCC), where APIs comprise 8.4 percent of enrollment, is taking steps to reach out to that community while “building a strong pipeline to make sure students see leaders that look like them,” says Lisa Avery, president of PCC’s Sylvania Campus and a member of the AACC board of directors who serves as the board’s liaison to NAPIC.

To help create a sense of belonging for these students, PCC offers a food pantry that serves APIs and other lower-income students and provides on-campus meals that include “affordable, low-cost nutritional food that is culturally relevant to them,” Avery says. Vietnamese chefs at two campuses offer such specialties as pho and bánh mì.

The Men of Color program at the Sylvania campus is led by Makerusa Porotesano from the Marshall Islands, who is expanding outreach to API students and getting them involved in research, empirical studies and mentoring.

A performance at the Jade Night Market, a community festival at Portland Community College’s Southeast Campus. (Photo: PCC)

At PCC’s Southeast Campus, which serves a large concentration of lower-income immigrant and refugee students, including many from Vietnam and Thailand, an annual Asian festival, the Jade Night Market, which features food trucks, music and dancing.

Student groups help organize it, and it draws people from the neighborhood, as well as the college and its K-12 partners. It’s expensive, but it’s an important investment as it “helps with visibility and creates a sense of belonging,” Avery says.

“There is a connection between community outreach, such as the Jade Market, and higher enrollment,” Avery says, noting that when someone enrolls, other members of their family are likely to join them.

Cultural competency

Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) has been working on several fronts to reduce the achievement gap among its API student population, as well as other minorities. The college’s enrollment is about 15 percent Asian American, which includes students from China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

“We know they’re going to struggle for a lot of reasons,” says President Pam Eddinger, who was born in Hong Kong and serves on the AACC board of directors.

Because English language proficiency remains a stumbling block, BHCC used an AANAPISI grant to accelerate and compress its English as a second language (ESL) program so students can get through it and into college-level courses faster, in the same way the college streamlined developmental education. The grant also helped BHCC provide success coaching to its Asian students, many of whom are immigrants, children of immigrants or first-generation college students, Eddinger says.

Eddinger feels strongly about the need to focus on social connections and social capital in its outreach to Asian students. “Even though they are poor, they have family connections, resilience and a rich cultural background. We don’t want them to abandon that,” she says.

To support its inclusion mandate, BHCC established a Center for Equity and Cultural Wealth to offer professional development to faculty and workshops to students based on the college’s goal to provide a curriculum that is “culturally appropriate and locally grounded,” Eddinger says.

Through that work, BHCC faculty learn how to incorporate the experiences of students into their courses, consider the racial context of issues and examine issues through an “equity lens,” she  says.

BHCC collaborated with a nonprofit in Boston’s Chinatown to open the Pao Arts Center, which hosts community college classes, community events and artists’ studios, and BHCC faculty bring students on field trips so they can learn how Chinatown was developed.

“We’re not just in our ivory tower,” Eddinger says. “We’re pulling in lived experiences. There’s always more than one way to engage the community.”

The cultural values, such as family support, that many immigrants bring to the table can have a big impact. Eddinger points to one student, Quan, who took an ESL course at BHCC when he was in his mid-20s. His English was so poor that he couldn’t get a job at a grocery store. Quan went on to earn a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from MIT.

For Eddinger, educators’ perspectives should focus on understanding the cultural wealth of immigrant and minority students, building confidence and “and doing it in a way that is respectful and honorable,” and not looking to “rescue them.”

“We’ve got to stop looking at minority populations to be lifted out,” Eddinger says. “They have real cultural values. I learn just as much from them as they learn from me.”

A complex population

When South Seattle College became one of the first colleges designated as an AANAPISI college about 10 years ago, “we learned we can’t treat the entire group as singular,” says President Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap, the daughter of Filipino immigrants.

“As a college, we’re trying to help people understand the complexity of the population,” she says, and “demystify the Asians-as-model-minority stereotype that they all are smart, play the violin and are good at math.”

South Seattle serves large numbers of Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipino-American students, but also has many students from Cambodia, other Southeast Asian countries and Pacific Islander students from Samoa, Tonga and Hawaii.

To help the college better serve and engage with those students, it received more than $4 million between 2008 and 2016 in AANAPISI funds to increase its capacity to serve API students, Rimando-Chareunsap says.

Current efforts under way at South Seattle include outreach to high schools and community groups that serve API students. College staff work with high school teachers and counselors to help those students with admissions, placement and the financial aid process.

South Seattle College trains advisors to address the unique needs of these groups and strengthen the ways they engage with families. An AANAPISI Center provides academic and social supports.

The college worked to increase API staff and make the curriculum more reflective of API culture. A chorale instructor brought the musical history of the Pacific islands into the classroom, for example.

Students also appreciated having faculty from their cultural backgrounds, Rimando-Chareunsap says. That spread the message that “South Seattle is a place that knows who we are,” she says. “A sense of belonging and a sense of place is really important.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.
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