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Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month: Building Awareness of the Realities Facing AAPI Students

In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, our Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Initiative Senior Managing Director explains the necessity to stay cognizant of the academic and socioeconomic challenges of AAPI students.

By Sarah Ha

April 29, 2016

Victoria Hong

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is a time when we celebrate the diversity of our community, past, present, and future. We all mark this moment in different ways – for students, it can be a time when they’re exposed to new stories and traditions in the classroom; for educators, it can serve as an opportunity to celebrate our AAPI leaders who faced oppression and fought for liberation in many different ways, but often remain missing from traditional “American” history and curriculum; and for many, it can be a springboard to learn more about, and stand in solidarity with, AAPI friends and colleagues.

For me, this month is about reflection and awareness. Too often, the nuances within the AAPI community are overlooked. AAPIs in the U.S. fall all across the socioeconomic spectrum, with more economically disenfranchised subgroups remaining largely invisible. The false “model minority” stereotype casts all Asians as privileged and academically high-achieving, pits our AAPI community against other marginalized communities, and too often leaves the AAPI community out of important conversations about ending educational equity and working towards social justice. It is our charge and hope that all AAPI students, families, and community members will be recognized, supported, and affirmed in our diverse identities and many stories.

I personally understand these realities all too well. After living in Worcester, Massachusetts, moving to Korea at age six, and returning to Worcester three years later having lost most of my English, I vividly remember the challenges I faced as a student. My culture, my low-income background, and being an English Language Learner were often seen as deficits. These factors could’ve prevented me from achieving academically if it had not been for exceptional teachers like my third-grade teacher Mrs. Geradi who was committed to helping me succeed and even brought in a Korean translator to help me learn.

Growing up as one of the few Asian American students in my school, I often felt invisible and alone as I yearned to feel a sense of connection or find a community where I belonged. Unfortunately, many AAPI students face similar experiences and obstacles today.  And it’s these same experiences and feelings that serve as the impetus for me, and others, to work in partnership to ensure this doesn’t remain the reality for our students.

AAPI 2013

At Teach For America we’re proud of the progress we’ve made in solidarity with AAPI students and teachers—and we know we have so much more to do. This May also marks the two-year anniversary of our national AAPI initiative. Over the past 12 months we’ve focused on a multitude of issues, including opening dialogue around the need for diverse AAPI leadership both inside and outside the classroom, bringing our community together in celebrations and calls to action at the 25th Anniversary Summit, organizing and collaborating on undergraduate student leadership opportunities, continuing to raise awareness of AAPI experiences within TFA staff and our broader educators network, and furthering our partnerships with other organizations working for and with Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.

One of our biggest wins of the past year was our collaboration with the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAPPI) on the #ActToChange campaign, which sought to empower students, families, and educators with the knowledge and tools to help prevent and end bullying. In the AAPI community, bullying is often compounded by cultural, religious, and linguistic barriers that can keep AAPI youth from seeking help. Anecdotal evidence has shown that certain AAPI groups—including South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Micronesian, LGBTQ, immigrant, and limited English proficient youth—are more likely to be the targets of bullying (i.e., 67 percent of turbaned youth surveyed in Fresno, California, reported being bullied/harassed and 50 percent of Muslim-American youth reported being bullied because of their religion). We were proud to support a mission which ensures that our youth and their communities have access to resources to help confront and prevent bullying so that we foster a culture that embraces and lifts all.

We also partnered with the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund for the #NotTheSame campaign to raise awareness of the “model minority” myth that assumes universal privilege for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and invited other community partners to host virtual staff discussions on the realities that face our AAPI community.

By raising awareness of these issues, engaging with AAPI organizations and families to better understand their realities, and working to bring more individuals who share and understand the backgrounds of these students into leadership opportunities to strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence, Teach For America hopes to be a partner in creating strong futures for our AAPI students. 

This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, let’s come together to highlight the unique experiences of our students and their families. We can ensure that AAPI students are no longer held to a false model minority standard or faced with the prevalent obstacles of educational inequity. It is imperative that in all months we champion the stories of our students, increase awareness of their needs, and highlight and celebrate the assets of the cultures and values that encompass the AAPI community.