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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Bridging Their Own Worlds: How Southeast Asian American Students Persist in the University

  • Author(s): Phommasa, Malaphone
  • Advisor(s): Duran, Richard P
  • et al.

Southeast Asian Americans have vast potential for educational advancement. Statistics reveal drastically different percentages of educational attainment when comparing the percentages of bachelor degree attainment of Southeast Asian American ethnic groups to their overall Asian American counterparts and the overall U.S. population (SEARAC, 2011), with nearly half of Cambodians, Laotian, and Hmong Americans aged 25 or older who have attended college leaving without earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree (CARE, 2011). This study examined 24 Southeast Asian American students’ experiences in higher education in order to understand the roots and remedies of this problem. The research questions that guided this study were: 1) What are the pathways that led Southeast Asian American students to academically rigorous universities?, 2) Who or what provides support to students, and who or what causes difficulties for students?, 3) How does the university’s campus racial climate affect students’ experiences at their university?, and 4) To what extent are culturally validating environments available to students at their university, and how do these environments support students’ multiple worlds?

To guide this study, I adapted three theoretical perspectives: the Bridging Multiple Worlds Model (2002, 2011), cultural validation frameworks, (Maramba & Palmer, 2014; Museus, Maramba, Palmer, Reyes, & Bresonis, 2013; Rendón, 1994), and campus racial climate frameworks (Hurtado, 1992; Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, & Allen, 1998; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Yosso, Smith, Ceja, Solórzano, 2009). This study used surveys and in-depth individual interviews with 24 Southeast Asian American undergraduate students from two public research universities in California. Students were identified as having Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, or Lao ethnic backgrounds.

Findings suggested that Southeast Asian American students gained educational and emotional support from high school outreach programs, family members, mentors, peers, their involvements in campus clubs and organizations, and campus resource centers. On the other hand, a lack of support during the college application process, their own mental roadblocks, other people, academics, finances, and feelings of loneliness, isolation, and marginalization caused difficulties on students’ educational pathways. In addition to this, the findings also suggested that students at both Coral Tree University and Redwood University experienced a negative campus racial climate. Not only did the majority of students consider there to be an insufficient number of Southeast Asian American students, there was also an insufficient number of culturally familiar faculty, staff, and administrators at both universities. Also, 17 of the 24 students had experienced incidents of racism or racial microaggressions at their universities. However, culturally validating environments such as the Asian American Studies Department, ethnic clubs and organizations, the campus outreach and retention center, campus cultural centers, and the people within these spaces helped students bridge their worlds by: 1) supporting students’ ethnic identity development, 2) opening lines of communication with parents, 3) developing mentoring relationships, 4) supporting students’ sense of belonging, and 5) helping students develop an awareness of or take action on social issues. Despite the fact that 11 of the 24 students considered leaving their university, all 24 students chose to persist through the challenges that they encountered along their educational pathways.

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