Youth programs are one of the big areas funders and community organizations serving the Lao community are interested in, and with good reason. While Lao made many gains over the last 40 years rebuilding their lives in the US, research conducted by the Asian American Justice Center in 2006 showed that educationally the Lao community lags behind 7 other Twin City Asian American groups including Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Asian Indian, Filipino and the Japanese. There’s been evidence that the community has had a difficult time moving that dial based on reports from the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans in 2012 and the Census 2010, as well.
This week, I want to outline some of the approaches we’ve been trying. The idea is that we can demystify the process and create a public space for a more open dialogue about what we can do, not just here, but for Lao communities in other states serving their youth.
Statistically, just 17% of Lao adults have a 2-year college degree or better compared to 43% of all Twin City adults. Further, 42% of Lao adults have less than a high school education as compared to just 9% of all Twin City adults. It’s clear that these figures will impact both Lao community growth and Minnesotan growth.
But what can be done to inspire Lao to pursue post-secondary education? What culture shifts are needed? Over the years, we’ve believed the right approach will require a blend of services including academic support, test preparation, concentrated placement assistance and social/emotional support from adults who understand the challenges Lao youth encounter. The research of Dr. Ketmani Koaunchao and other Lao scholars seems to support this model. The solutions must also be culturally-appropriate and connected to the community.
Our Minnesota organizations have typically sought to expand upon our existing youth leadership-focused activities.
If successful, this investment in youth leadership-focused activities would ensure Lao voices emerge who are fit academically, ready for the workforce and can form peer cohorts to support each other. The difficulty has been getting both community members and local and national foundations to support these efforts, but many in our community still feel the method is sound and the need is clear.
In designing our programs, we have to consider how the proposed activities will benefit our community. Ideally, a youth advancement program will empower, nurture and inspire our youth to pursue post-secondary education.
It has go beyond “go to school, get good grades.” The program should place a strong priority on developing positive relationships with adults. It should encourage youth to make thoughtful decisions about their future. To see that they have a future.
A Lao community organization and its constituents need to agree that increasing the number of college-bound Lao youth is a path to creating a self-sufficient community. An ideal goal is forming a community that is also integrated well with the broader community. The broader community, meanwhile, needs to see the benefits from a well-educated, diverse workforce, one that is gainfully employed and less reliant on tax-supported services. A good proposal will make the case for this.
In addition to parent seminars, the Lao Minnesotan community has tried, with various levels of success over the years, to provide at least five services to our families over the years. This includes:
1) Access to Academic Support. By using the organizations’ meeting spaces, Lao students could receive support in accessing additional academic support when needed. In some years, we’ve been able to send tutors into the schools to meet with them there, if they were having trouble accessing transport. Typically, a school needs to have at least 6 to 12 students to form a good study group. Over the years, we used a model with mixed grades: Younger students and older students together who can help each other seems to work best.
2) ACT Prep Classes. Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments testing, the ACT and the SAT are all things our students need assistance passing. To date, the biggest focus has been on passing the ACT, on the grounds of limited resources and the sense that in being able to pass an ACT, one will have the academic skills to pass the other tests. The ideal version of the support program in any given year would offer regular ACT prep classes that are broken down into four 3-hour sessions (for a total of 12 hours of training.) A community needs these classes taught by an experienced contracted teacher. Two sessions would be held during the regular school year, and two would be held during the summer.
3) College Tours. We need to demystify college for many of our youth and their families. The sooner we can expose them to an academic setting and get them to see it as something that can and should be a part of their future, the more effective we can be. Good organizations work with the families to arrange college tours during the year. College tours should be led by Lao alumni, who can provide culturally appropriate perspectives and honest assessments of the experience.
These tours will expose our youth to college life, and identify the requirements they need to have to get acceptance, and how to finance their education realistically. The Lao student organizations on many campuses need to make time to welcome prospectie students because these may one day be their peers and future members and officers.
4) Application Assistance. The Lao organizations in Minnesota have usually worked to help students identify at least two colleges to apply to and by October of their senior year, each student would apply to at least one college. The staff, when funded, could provide assistance to individual students and would work to mobilize at least 10-12 volunteers who can support students during the application process.
During the process of applying to college, scholarships and financial aid packaging would be explored on a case-by-case basis. Of course, in years when community members won’t make the time to volunteer, it has hampered this program’s effectiveness.
5) Transition Mentors. When successfully funded for the year, the organizations have often sought to develop a database of Lao college students and college graduates who would be willing to support Lao high school students make the transition to college.
The program’s goal was to match each high school senior to a transition mentor, someone who can support and encourage the youth in transitioning to college. The research shows these mentors can make a critical difference for many of our students who will be the first in their families to attend college.
Ideally, we also need our organizations to provide ways for our youth to build their volunteer and community service experience. Many of our students were part of a media training project that entered a competition by the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Center. They received first prize for their work in 2011, and they were able to leverage their participation into a positive accomplishment in their college and scholarship applications. Others were able to participate in projects such as the National Lao American Writers Summit or the Legacies of War: Refugee Nation Twin Cities Interdisciplinary exhibition, or conducted outreach on tobacco prevention, the Census 2010, and getting out the vote.
What resulted? We saw the creation of experienced, community-driven students who had built great skills sets that were transferable into their academic, professional and civic lives, who took initiative and helped others in meaningful ways. They could advocate for themselves, and for others. They gave back to the community, and programs were designed so that our community could proudly say we had a role in their success.
If you’re designing a program for your Lao youth, you have to ask: Are we giving them a chance to shine? And how would you feel if they couldn’t realize their fullest potential?
Can a project like the ones we’ve implemented in Minnesota transfer over to communities like Georgia, Wisconsin, Iowa, or Kansas? We believe so. Each zone, whether it’s Rhode Island or Pennsylvania, California or Texas will of course also have unique challenges and unique personalities who will drive their program’s success. We shouldn’t be afraid to work together to create exciting opportunities for our students. Because one day, they’ll be the ones changing our world. But we need to invest in them today for that future to happen.