Educating ourselves, our community


The first question to the Obama campaign during a recent townhall for Asian Americans was “how are you going to ensure we can all have access to higher education?” This resonated with me because only a few weeks earlier, the Pew Research Center released its study, “The Rise of Asian Americans” on the growth of the Asian American community, especially over the last decade.

The experience of Lao Americans was completely excluded from the Pew study, providing yet one more example of why gathering data on Asian Americans needs to be disaggregated. Census 2010 figures show that there has been change in the education statistics for the Lao American community: 13.2% of us have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to the 7.8% we had in 2000. This is a definite improvement, but considering the overall attainment of Americans is 28.2% holding degrees, we should recognize the work still ahead of us. But how do we have a real conversation about what works, and what does not?

As I studied for my own doctorate and examined the journey of Lao students attending college, I became familiar with the work of John Dewey, who believed we couldn’t get an effective democracy without an effective democratic school system. This is a concept I hope we don’t lose sight of as we begin the next round of education reforms across the country.  The late Senator Paul Wellstone famously said, “We all do better when we all do better,” and I think this definitely applies to our pursuit of education.

Lao culture has traditionally revered education. You can see it reflected in our proverbs like “A head full of knowledge is worth more than a tray full of jewels.” But during the war, many of us received an incomplete education because it was too dangerous to remain in the classrooms during the bombing and fighting. Resettling in the US, our priorities were often placed on establishing economic security not just for yourself, but for your whole family. Only a fraction of us have successfully completed college while trying to create a better life for our parents, siblings and children. But for refugees, education is the most consistent avenue towards success.

If the 2010 Census is accurate, there are 12,009 Lao Minnesotans. How different would our community be if we had 3,360 of us with bachelor’s degrees and civically engaged? The data suggests we might have enough children under the age of 18 to make a small city. The economic and social potential of our youth is incredible, but how do we connect them to the education systems to give them the best chances in life?

In our community there are concerns that our results tend to be very polarized. Those of us who do well do very well, while those who fall between the cracks fall hard. Many of our families are still in a survival-mentality that is driving their willingness to connect and share resources with one another. Rather than helping others negotiate the systems vital to pursuing education, such as financial aid programs and scholarship opportunities, some just sit on the information or do nothing to help others access it. This isn’t a good  long-range strategy to build community.

As we get ready to send our children back to school, we need to remember to take them under our wings and appreciate that learning is a lifelong journey. We cannot expect them to return and give back to our community if we are not there for them at the beginning. In ten years, we almost doubled the number of Lao with higher education. In the next ten years, is it possible we could have the same education level as mainstream Americans? Or could we even surpass those statistics? We need to start looking now at what the best strategies are to grow as an educated community.

There’s an old Lao saying, “If you know, teach. If you don’t know, learn.” We should remember that, and do our best to help each other pass on the best of what we’ve learned. Education and knowledge will not just be given to us, it must be sought, and it must be shared for any of us to truly move ahead in life.