For the Asian American Pacific Islander immigrant population, the spectra of socioeconomic barriers for students are real. And for parents, that reality can be even more poignant as they face challenges in understanding their child’s academic journey. The Asian Model Minority Myth is a detriment to the reality of Asian immigrant parents who face unique challenges engaging with their children’s education. The glamour stories that Asian parents can raise perfectly educated children, such as in the hotly-debated “Tiger Mom” book by Amy Chua, veneer the actual struggles and strains experienced.

In the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, educators and policymakers work to dispel the myths about Asian American and Pacific Islander participation in education. Methods must be done critically, responsively and relevantly, the commission suggests. One key element is supporting meaningful K-12 involvement and participation with parents with little or no formal U.S education.

Sounds simple. But for many Asian Pacific Islander immigrant parents, getting engaged and involved in school can be a foreign concept. Add to that, language barriers, financial and time limitations and a lack of awareness of the U.S. education system and these traditional parent engagement strategies will be ineffective.

Teachers can also feel discouraged, assuming immigrant parents don’t care about their child’s education — an engagement critical to any child’s success in school.

“It can be a challenge if parents are not involved in their child’s education,” says James Hong, Director of Youth and Community Leadership for the Vietnamese Friendship Association in Seattle. “Here in America, schools and administrators expect parents to be actively engaged in their child’s education such as being in the PTA, going to family nights or parent-teacher conferences.”

When schools do not have bilingual staff to translate letters being sent home or is not present during meetings and orientations, parents rely heavily on their child to be the translator. However, messages that children translate may not be the most accurate and children may feel burdened.

“I didn’t want to do activities with my child’s school,” says Bing Zhang, an immigrant parent who raised two children in the Seattle public school system. “Because I would have to speak English and my children would need to translate. Like calling if they were sick, going to conferences or volunteering in field trips.”

 Parents and children from the VFA’s Youth Program. Photo courtesy VFA.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1.3 million Asian American students spoke a language other than English at home in 2007.

Beyond the language barrier, immigrant parents may not understand the U.S school system and their role in it. In Asian countries, parents are not traditionally expected to take active roles in their child’s education.

“In many Asian cultures, including Vietnam, parents trust the schools and teachers to educate their children,” says Hong. “Parents largely stay out of those affairs.”

A 2005 report by the National Education Association on the status of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Education confirms this. The study reports that API immigrant parents face linguistic and cultural barriers to involvement in their children’s education. In research among Cambodian and Hmong families, parents were often uncomfortable questioning the authorities of teachers and school staff. Parents were often confused as to why the school wanted them responsible to address truancy issues when the assumption was the school could exercise disciplinary authority over their children.

Without parental involvement and teachers expecting immigrant parents to be responsible, this conflict can isolate those in the middle — children — who are then forced to fend for themselves in finding support.

Thina Truong immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was 6 years-old. She recalls having to navigate the school system and find after-school tutors without help from her parents.

“My parents didn’t understand the system and second of all, they didn’t speak English,” says Truong. “They would go to my parent-teacher conferences, but I would always have to do translation. It’s not that they don’t want to help, but they just don’t know how to help.”

Truong holds a masters degree today but reflects back, believing that reaching her educational goals as a young child required self-discipline.

“My parents didn’t understand how many classes I had to take, or what my requirements were to graduate or anything about financial aid,” says Truong. “I did everything independently.”

For Bernadette Flores, her family — who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines when she was 17 years-old — hoped she could obtain a U.S college degree despite already being accepted to a university in the Philippines.

“I was admitted to a very good university in the Philippines,” says Flores. “But my parent’s business in the Philippines closed down so they decided it would be a better future for us [in the U.S.]. They wanted me to have a college degree here.”

Although Flores dodged the K-12 education maze, maneuvering the U.S. college system proved a challenge as well.

“College life in the Philippines is really different,” says Flores. “Coming here, my parents did not help me at all. We came at the same time. I was on my own and they didn’t really understand a lot of the details.”

Gathering a few pointers from her cousins that grew up in the United States, Flores enrolled at her nearest community college and navigated her way by connecting with friends and counselors that eventually led her to transfer to the University of Washington.

“I never really communicated with my parents about my education process,” says Flores. “They would ask about my grades but never the details about my classes because the culture is really different.”

The intricate procedures and roles of the U.S education system renders challenges for immigrant parents to access resources and engage fully with their child’s education experience even when they wholeheartedly care. The assumption that they don’t care is flawed, diminishing their sacrifice and endurance in immigrating to the U.S.

Parents and children from the VFA's Youth Program. Photo courtesy VFA.

In a report by the National Education Association, API immigrant parents encounter significant barriers in the workplace—often holding more than one low-paying job and are more willing to accept night shifts and overtime hours, vastly diminishing their time spent invested or engaged in their child’s education.

“Of course I cared,” says Zhang. “But with raising two children back then, I had to work long hours and I just couldn’t go to school functions.”

Hong says, “It can also be about finding access to transportation, finding meal plans and having access to childcare.”

While parental engagement with a child’s education is undoubtedly a factor in success, there are challenges depending on a student’s background that must be identified and addressed — in fact, embraced — for a student to experience both academic and personal achievement.

Video courtesy of Jasmin Eng

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