One of my big inspirations is Aung San Suu Kyi, who is an amazing woman and a voice for democracy. Back in 1991 she said “It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than to respond sensitively to their needs. To care is to accept responsibility, to dare to act in accordance with the dictum that the ruler is the strength of the helpless.”
As we enter the new year for the Lao community this April, I think it’s important to take time to appreciate what words like those mean, especially as we look at our efforts to provide a great education system for our children across the country. One where they can learn what they want to learn, and pursue their dreams meaningfully.
I’m still inspired by the young voices I met while speaking to the Laotian American Community of Fresno last year as their keynote speaker. It was clear to me how much they meant to their parents and families, and to their neighbors they were growing up with. I wanted to do all I could to make sure that when their time comes, college is something they can seriously consider. I hope higher education remains something all of us can proudly say is a route to lifelong success.
But this is also something college officials can’t take for granted. If a system consistently fails a community, that community will stop turning to that system.
I’m presenting at the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education conference in San Francisco this April on the unique experiences of Lao American college students and why our ability to help them matters. I’d love to see many of my fellow Lao academics and other professionals join us there. Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education had its roots over 27 years ago to address the issue of Asian Americans in colleges and universities.
Why do we need to be there? Almost 90% of Lao Americans in the US over 25 lack a bachelor’s degree. Only 1% of us having a masters degree or higher. After 40 years in the US, we need to be at the table to seriously discuss where we go next.
How do we make sure our kids succeed in a way that lets them be fully-participating members of our culture?
As we go into the New Year, across the country we hear so many families complain the kids are losing touch with what it means to be Lao. Gripes that no one understands what the rituals and ceremonies are about. Few people put things into context. People are doing things just for the sake of doing them, and not even stopping to challenge our assumptions. Who is stopping to ask why we want our kids to do these things in the first place.What does it mean if they do?
Let’s make this year an exception. And the year after that, and after that, even. Lao culture needs to be a part of our kids lives so that it is an asset, not a liability.
When we gather as Lao to celebrate, this is also a time where we should be giving our youth a chance to explore their identities and to build their skills and competencies to become part of a bigger world. They should not only be proud to be Lao, but they should be excited about what they can bring to the Lao traditions and our community as a whole. And as a community, we shouldn’t be afraid to recognize and acknowledge those efforts and the best of what they bring.
We’ll be doing our children, and ourselves, a favor by raising them to be insatiable learners and innovators.
But is the American college system set up to allow our children to succeed if we send them there?
In the US, we have a chance to show the world that educational democracy can work. We can’t take that for granted. We can’t assume that we can just sit back be disengaged. Democracy relies on everyone’s voices being heard and taken into consideration.
One of the great joys of being a part of America is the diversity of our education system. You have many methods you can choose from to educate yourself. Some go to community colleges. Some go to four-year public colleges. Others go to private colleges, or take online courses. Sometimes there are going to be disagreements in that process where different parts of the system don’t see eye to eye, but we need to be committed to working things out for the benefit of all of our interests.
We need to speak up in favor of policies that promote genuine equitable access to affordable, quality higher education.
We need our educational institutions to be responsible and accountable to us. We don’t want our most vulnerable families youth in danger of becoming paupers before they even finish their education. In California, the California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris said “Creating a system of haves and have-nots is no way to educate our state.” It’s an important notion I think Minnesotans can also get behind, and Lao everywhere, no matter where they live in the world.
Happy new year, everyone, and let’s get our journey off to an amazing start!