A US community college that makes Asians feel welcome

Community colleges in the US are taking steps to help foreign students feel at home

By Linda K. Wertheimer/New York Times News Service
  • Published 21.05.19, 11:27 AM
  • Updated 21.05.19, 11:27 AM
  • 2 mins read
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Socheata Mam (centre) creates paper lanterns at the Middlesex Community College’s Asian American Connections Center in Lowell, Massachusetts (NYTNS)

After her first class at Middlesex Community College, US, last fall, Socheata Mam sank into a couch in the main building’s lobby. The 19-year-old Cambodian immigrant was overwhelmed, realising she had committed to a full load of five classes and her 30-hour-a-week job as a grocery cashier.

Her parents, with limited English skills, could not guide her. They had never had a chance to go to college because the Khmer Rouge not only committed genocide of more than 1.7 million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979, they also cut off educational opportunities for many of those who survived.

Mam, who immigrated to the US at age nine, said she believed she had to rely on herself for everything at her college in Lowell, Massachusetts. But Virak Uy, a Cambodian refugee who is the director of the college’s new Program for Asian American Student Advancement, had no intention of letting her flounder. He urged Mam to stop by the Asian American Connections Center, which opened in 2017 to help Southeast Asian students.

At the centre, Mam could use the computers, eat lunch, use some of the sriracha sauce stocked in the minifridge and hang out with Asian students. She could get tutoring, academic advising and financial aid tips and maybe eventually shed that feeling that she was on the outside looking in, the same experience Uy had a few decades ago as a freshman at Boston College.

“The centre feels like another home. I go in there, do my homework, talk to them about my day,” Mam said. “It gives me a sense of comfort in a way, just because there are a lot of familiar faces here.”

The imposing college building
The imposing college building (Official college website)

Southeast Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic or racial group in community colleges and enter college with a number of issues — including poverty and limited English skills. These students have as high a risk of dropping out as low-income Hispanic or African-American students. Yet colleges and policymakers often do not realise it because Southeast Asian students’ statistics are lumped in as part of overall Asian student performance. Their problems are hidden partly because of the myth that all Asians are academic superstars and flourish in high school and college.

Asian-American students, interviewed in focus groups, told educators at the college how isolated and stressed they felt. Some ventured into a multicultural centre before the Asian student centre opened, but rarely stayed because of the lack of Asians. They said they did not believe professors understood their culture and history, a problem Middlesex is hoping to resolve.

Several students said it helped to hear Uy’s story. He, like many of the centre’s other regulars, had to learn English as a second language. His first language is Khmer, which Cambodians pronounce ka-mai. Uy, 44, immigrated from a refugee camp in Thailand when he was nine.

At Middlesex, he brought students, their families, community members and faculty together last year to watch a screening of Angelina Jolie’s film, First They Killed My Father, the story of a young Cambodian girl’s experience during the genocide. He participated in a panel discussion, opening a dialogue that few students had ever had with their family members.

Karonika Brown, 34, who graduated with an associate degree from Middlesex in 2016 then remained on campus working and taking classes, went to the film.

“I was bawling — it was awful because I could relate to so much of it,” said Brown. She was born in Cambodia in 1983 after the genocide, but both of her parents had been in internment camps. She was recently accepted to Simmons College but decided it was too costly. She plans to transfer to the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, in the fall of 2019, to get a bachelor’s degree in education and become a teacher.