Connecting education to lifelong success

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In Laos, there is an old saying that “only the lucky ones can go to good schools.” I often thought of this as I went to school in Minnesota. We felt lucky, but I think the lucky also have an implicit responsibility to pass the best of what we learned on to others. Creating a gap between the intellectual haves and have-nots is a sure way to create dangerous dead-ends for any community.

This October, the Supreme Court is hearing a case that has become a big topic among Asian Americans because of its implications for emerging college students across the country.  In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the question is whether the University of Texas-Austin’s use of race as one of several factors to determine part of their total admissions pool is constitutional. There are some who argue race neutral policies are the only ways to ensure Asian Americans have fair representation in college, while others argue the opposite. This is a case that could far-reaching effects, no matter which side you’re on.

I lived through the years of the ‘model minority’ myth that painted Asian Americans as a group of overachievers, and I’ve seen the continuing struggle of many students trying to enter and succeed in college. This case is one of many debates that affirms my belief that we need to disaggregate the data we collect. When we don’t take the time to see the real experiences of different Asian American communities such as the Lao, the Vietnamese, or the Khmer, we can’t form a complete view of the issues facing Southeast Asian American students. 

I’m particularly concerned because my research among Lao college students suggests there are many Lao girls who had to defer their own dreams for the good of the family. Yet other researchers’ findings suggest this might not always be the best solution for our families, over the long-term. It’s something we should consider as we consider our future directions.

Studies are indicating that effectively educated girls help families to escape multigenerational poverty, no matter what country you’re in. Girls who can complete secondary school statistically earn more money to provide for their families, and create a healthy, sustainable environment. A place where the girls pass on what they learned to their own children. If we were able to consistently educate our girls well, we can reduce the strain on so many parts of the system, from the families to the government and other parts of society. It is not the whole solution, but it is an important element.

When I consider that almost half of the Lao in the US are under 18 and many of them girls, and many also have lived or are even still living at or near the federal poverty level, I can’t see the point in erecting more barriers to discourage girls from pursuing higher education. 

Years ago, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary-General said “Literacy unlocks the door to learning throughout life, is essential to development and health, and opens the way for democratic participation and active citizenship.” I think this applies well to many forms of education. But what are we doing to make those opportunities truly available?

While it may take time before the Supreme Court makes a final decision on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, I think we all owe it to ourselves to understand what is at stake and what more we can do to create opportunities for all.