By Kaitlin Mulkerin
LOWELL — Receiving nearly $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education, UMass Lowell plans to create a center that supports the university’s Asian American and Pacific Islander students.
The five-year grant will allow the university to open the new Asian American Center for Engagement and Excellence (AACEE). The center will offer staff and peer mentoring support to help students access financial aid and academic, career and wellness services.
According to recent data, 13% of UMass Lowell undergraduates identify as Asian American, while fewer than 1% are Pacific Islanders. Most of them come from Southeast Asian refugee families that have settled in and around Lowell. Many are also transfer students from Middlesex Community College.
Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Julie Nash said the university wants to help bridge financial, language and cultural barriers for the growing number of Southeast Asian students who have enrolled at UMass Lowell over the past decade, so more of them can successfully complete college.
“Now that we have this grant, thanks to years of foundational work by UMass Lowell faculty and staff participating in this project, Asian American students will know that this is a place where they’ll be supported and have programs in place to help them thrive,” said Nash, who is leading the initiative.
The team also includes Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Sue Kim and Education Associate Professor Phitsamay Uy, who co-direct the university’s Center for Asian American Studies, and Dean of Equity and Inclusion Leslie Wong, who leads the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Robin Toof, co-director of UMass Lowell’s Center for Community Research and Engagement, will evaluate the new center and its programs.
The university was eligible to apply for the grant as a “minority-serving institution,” where at least 10% of students are Asian American or Pacific Islanders and have demonstrated financial need.
Many Asian American students at UMass Lowell come from Southeast Asian refugee families who lost everything during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, the Vietnam War or the CIA’s secret war in Laos, including family members, land, possessions, livelihoods and years of schooling, said Uy, who was born in Laos. Other South Asian and East Asian American students tend to come from middle-class and wealthy communities.
Lowell has the second largest population of Cambodian Americans in the U.S., as well as significant numbers of Vietnamese, Hmong and Lao refugees and more recent refugees from Myanmar. Uy said these refugee families have suffered serious trauma, which affects their children in multiple ways.
She said Asian Americans overall have a reputation as an academically and financially successful “model minority.” Uy said this is largely because data on Southeast Asians is combined with data on ethnic East Asians (including China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea) and South Asians (including India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh).
“It makes it look like we’re all doing well and don’t need help, but that’s not true,” Uy said. “Southeast Asian students need more personal care and attention due to their families’ lack of familiarity with the educational system. They often don’t have mentors who look like them and speak their (home) languages, and they are financially disadvantaged.”
AACEE will build upon the programs in the Center for Asian American Studies and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and will partner with community organizations to help bridge language and cultural gaps with families, Kim said. The new center also will create mentoring programs and opportunities, drawing on successful Asian American alumni and community members to serve as role models for students.
Of the grant money, $10,000 each year for five years, which UMass Lowell must match through donations, will be used to establish an endowment for scholarships for Southeast Asian American students. Uy and the new AACEE project director will also provide cultural competency training for faculty and staff.
“We see this initiative as integral to the university’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Plan,” Kim said. “UMass Lowell has been building and will continue to build programs to equip all our students to succeed.”
“If your high school doesn’t prepare you and your family doesn’t support you, and now you’re at a school where you don’t have anyone who knows your name or your story, one bad bump in the road can cause you to leave college,” Uy says. “With our center, we hope they will see a familiar face and find the support they need.”