It’s just another stereotype commonly associated with Asian Americans: They’re naturally smart, attain high degrees with ease and make lots of money. But like most stereotypes, this “model minority myth” only accounts for one or two percent of the population and discounts a large segment of the group, particulary Southeast Asians.
According to statistics by University of Massachusetts, Amherst Sociology Professor C.N. Le, in his 2012 report, Southeast Asians are 5.3 times more likely to be illiterate compared to non-Hispanic whites. They have the highest high school dropout rate in the country. Yet, their needs and struggles are often overlooked.
“If you look at the vast group of Asian Americans, from Indians to Chinese to Southeast Asians, there is a wide range of gaps when it comes to socioeconomic status and education attainment, but we clump that entire group as one,” said Ay Saechao, co-chair and co-founder of the Southeast Asian American Access in Education Summit (SEAeD).
In a report prepared by University of Washington professors Shirley Hune and David T. Takeuchi, Southeast Asians are found to have a 14 percent dropout rate in Seattle’s public schools—the highest of any ethnic group.
Nationally, the rate of college degree attainment for Laoations, Cambodians, and Hmong, the three groups Saechao identified as the most struggling, is less than 10 percent. That’s a quarter the rate of the larger Asian American segment, according to Le’s report.
The SEAeD was established in January 2012 and is made up of 35 members, mostly of Southeast Asian descent. It has the mission of building awareness about the needs of SE Asian students and their parents to become successful in the education system. They also hope to provide mentors from within the community.
“Policymakers, researchers and educators don’t address this group,” said Saechao. “The community itself also has a lack of awareness when it comes to educational access.”
The lack of conversation is what perpetuates the stereotype, he said.
The group has identified several factors that have contributed to illiteracy in this community.
Cambodians and Laotians who immigrated in the 1980s as war refugees didn’t have an educational background. They worked in the farms and the fields. Their children today are not only first generation high school students, but in some cases, first generation elementary school students, said Saechaeo.
Saechao said that a common way to indicate if a student is going to succeed is by looking at the parent’s education level. For parents who can’t read, write or speak English, it can be difficult to navigate the complex education system with their children. They can’t communicate with teachers, help their child with math or writing or know what the pathway to college looks like.
“Our grandparent’s capital doesn’t apply to the capital that helps students succeed here,” said Saechao about the generational gap. “There is a lot of wisdom, but there’s a disconnect because it doesn’t align with current society.”
The high poverty rate of groups like the Hmong, Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese also means that families don’t have access to resources like technology, books and especially higher education finances.
But, Connie So, a lecturer in American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington and a member of SEAeD, warned against overgeneralizing Southeast Asians. It is a diverse population group that includes people from Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
“This is not a cultural thing and is circumstantial,” she said. Newer groups that come to this country without an established community to reach out to tend to struggle initially, pointing to early Irish immigrants as an example.
In the past five years, a large influx of refugees from Burma have immigrated to this country. Because education in Burma was limited by social class and there are few Burmese Americans in the U.S., this is one group that the summit members hope to focus on.
The summit, which brings together families, policymakers and educators, will be held on October 6 at Highline Community College.