Last week, University of Washington students and APIs voiced their concerns over the loss of a staff position intended to reach out to Southeast Asians due to what UW officials said was a lack of funding.
Southeast Asians already face disparities within the Asian American community. According to the UW Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity (OMAD), of the 27 percent of students who enrolled as freshmen in fall 2011 and identify as Asian, only four percent identify as Southeast Asian. Hmong and Laotian students make up 0.1 percent of the student body and Cambodian students make up 0.4 percent.
An open meeting of the UW Student Advisory Board on Monday, November 25, addressed OMAD’s elimination of the Southeast Asian Recruitment Coordinator position. Up until November 20, the position had been filled by UW alumna Latana Thaviseth, whose job it was to conduct outreach with Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Hmong, Khmer, and other Southeast Asian groups.
A host of UW officials attended the meeting, including Sheila Edwards Lange (Vice Provost for Diversity and Vice President for Minority Affairs); Ana Mari Cauce (UW Provost and Executive Vice President); and Kiana M. Scotta, a member of the UW Board of Regents, the body that creates the University’s budget.
For many community members who attended the meeting, UW officials did not adequately address why the Southeast Asian recruiter position was cut or provide any means of restoring it.
Lange diverted most questioning to a future meeting. She also said that there was never long term funding for the Southeast Asian recruiter position.
“Let’s just be clear, it was always a temporary position,” Lange said. “There is no funding for this position.”
When asked about the elimination of the Southeast Asian recruiter position, Cauce said that “budget and budget decisions within units [colleges, departments, etc.] are not made by provosts.”
However, as provost, Cauce does possess control over what budget OMAD gets in the larger scheme of things through her responsibility over the Office of Planning and Budgeting.
Tony Vo, director of UW’s Asian Student Commission (ASC), had for several years pushed OMAD to create the Southeast Asian recruiter position. Now that the position is the first to fall to budget cuts, Vo said it sends the wrong message to minority students.
“What message are we sending out to students who are Southeast Asian? It’s saying that they are not as important,” Vo said to UW officials. “It devalues their history and struggles. And this is what hurts the most, that there is no attempt at why we need emphasis on this population. And when it comes to racism, education, and history, Asians are never mentioned. Southeast Asians are never mentioned at all. And this erases the position of Asians as part of the conversation of people of color. This action that you are taking will marginalize our community.”
According to Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), a human and civil rights organization, Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans face the biggest obstacles to education among Asian American ethnic groups. Only 61 percent of Hmong Americans hold a high school diploma, while only 12 percent of Laotian Americans have graduated from college, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled from 2007 to 2009. In comparison, 28 percent of the total population of people in the United States possess a Bachelor’s Degree or higher.
Problems for Southeast Asian Americans arise even within the interpretations of census data. Data collected on Asian Americans has primarily focused on East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans) and those who were part of the earlier waves of immigrants, including Filipinos and Indians.
The experiences and realities of Southeast Asians are not often reflected. Southeast Asians are not only newer immigrants to the United States, but a majority are refugees due to the United States military presence in Southeast Asia.
The conflation of Asian ethnicities into a singular identity erases the different realities within the Asian American community and marginalizes those who do not fit into the mainstream picture of what an Asian is. Not all people are aware of the disparities that Southeast Asians face, and UW officials do not appear have an understanding of that.
During the meeting, Vo had commented on the value for Southeast Asian students to see someone who shares their same culture and struggles in the University setting.
Cauce responded: “There is something called face validity that we talk about in psychology. And what face validity generally means is that … [facial recognition] sometimes, not necessarily, relates to the deeper validity. And I agree that there is an immediate [contact] by someone that looks like you. But it’s face validity, it’s only that. It’s sometimes not all that deep. I know people that look more like me and have less in common with them, than people that don’t.”
I’d like to point out to Provost Cauce that face validity is an effect of having on-campus representation and outreach to incoming students. For Southeast Asian students who make up only a fraction of a fraction of the student body, seeing people who come from their own background goes much deeper than for a student who is used to being a part of the majority.
Debbora Sary, a member of the Khmer Student Association, said: “I’m Cambodian, and there isn’t a really big population of Southeast Asian on campus. Right now, I don’t really see a lot of Southeast Asians. I came from a predominantly white public school, and I would have loved to have a recruiter come to my school and tell us ‘Come to UW,’ but I didn’t.”
UW administrators need to understand the obstacles faced by Southeast Asians and have the courage to show that the university values its least represented students.