Phitsamay Uy recalls her shock at the failure rate of students in Long Beach, Calif.’s Southeast Asian community.
It was 1997 and she was teaching first grade.
The community with the highest Khmer population in the U.S.— Lowell is the second largest— suffered from soaring dropout rates and the largest incarcerated Asian population in the California prison system.
“State and federal policies weren’t addressing the problems,” says Uy, a Lao refugee who escaped to the U.S. at age 6 with her family.
She wanted to make an impact, so she decided to pursue her doctoral studies.
“Many people don’t know enough about the Southeast Asian community but we can be found in all 50 states and in some areas like Long Beach, Minneapolis and Lowell, our students may make up 25 percent of the school population,” says Uy. “This is why it is necessary for me and other scholars to conduct research that informs teachers about our community issues and needs.”
Now an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education, she partners with community-based organizations like the Center for Southeast Asians, a nonprofit based in Providence, R.I., to conduct workshops with Southeast Asian parents and educators.
“Instead of thinking of parents of immigrant and refugee students as problematic, we use an asset-based framework and create programming that centers on the strengths the community brings to the schools,” says Uy. “With this framework, I conduct workshops for the principals, school staff and teachers on how to engage diverse families and think about moving their parent involvement activities beyond bake sales and cultural shows.”
In the workshops with parents, she encourages them to talk with their children about issues at school and learn how U.S. schools operate. For many immigrant parents who do not speak English, it is hard to communicate with teachers and administrators. Uy teaches them that they have a right to ask for translation of any written material and during meetings with school staff.
Staying Connected to Her Roots
As a Lao refugee child, Uy remembers struggling with poverty, language barriers and a misunderstanding of the U.S. education system.
“My parents worked in manufacturing in Vermont and earned an annual combined income of $11,000 for a family of six,” says Uy. “My mom worked second shift and was never able to attend any school events. Sometimes she would bring me with her when she was cleaning offices to show me how hard it was to not have an education.”
The key to Uy’s success was a circle of mentors, teachers and coaches who gave her the advice and moral support that propelled her to complete her education to the doctoral level.
“The positive support that I received from others motivates me to help mentor the next generation of immigrant and refugee students,” she says.
Her doctoral dissertation examined the factors that contributed to Lao and Khmer high school students’ decision to drop out or stay in school. Her current research project studies the college and career readiness of Southeast Asian students and their families. By conducting research and sharing her findings with people who create programs and enact policies to address issues of inequity, she realizes her passion to make a bigger difference in people’s lives.
“Our whole community is struggling with poverty, health disparities and political representation,” she says, “I made a conscious effort to stay connected to where I came from because I didn’t want to isolate myself in theory or the halls of academia, since it was my community that motivated me in the first place.”