California State University, Long Beach
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Serving Underserved Asian-American and Pacific Islander Communities

Published: May 1, 2015

In October 2010, the California State University (CSU) convened Asian and Pacific Islander community leaders to discuss how to approach and explore the potential for collaborative interactions with their community-based organizations (CBO). From that meeting, the CSU Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Initiative was created, the goal being to improve college access and graduation rates for students from those underserved communities.

“The goals set in 2010 are still relevant in 2015,” said Simon Kim, interim associate vice president for the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, who has been involved with the initiative from the beginning. “We picked the right goals and right objectives based on input from community members.”

Those community members presented data showing Southeast Asian students have the highest high school dropout rate amongst all Asians and in certain areas they have higher high school dropout rates than those from what are traditionally identified as underserved populations—African Americans and Latinos. Also, the data showed those students have one of the lowest rates when it comes to gaining access to higher education.

“There was an assumption that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders didn’t need any additional support because of the ‘model minority myth’ that we often talk about,” said Kim. “I call this a population without any voice and unless someone plays the role of advocate—their voice—their needs are not going to be met.”

The “model minority myth” in this case came to light when the chancellor’s office looked at Entry Level Mathematics (ELM) and English Placement Test (EPT) results—placement tests which are a requirement prior to enrollment in the CSU. Those tests revealed a huge disparity among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. More specifically, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander ELM and EPT scores were much lower than East Asians.

The issue is important to the CSULB campus for a number of reasons, in great part because Long Beach has the largest Cambodian population outside of Southeast Asia. It is such a key issue, in fact, that CSULB President Jane Close Conoley visited Sacramento with a Cambodian student in January to inform lawmakers what the university is doing to help this population. She also reminded lawmakers it was important not to lump all Asian-American ethnic groups together when it comes to funding and policy decisions and convince them that student support services are vital to the Cambodian community.

That needed reminder is reinforced when looking at U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2006-10, which reveal only 13 percent of Cambodian Americans in Los Angeles County have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 47 percent of Chinese residents and 44 percent of Caucasians.

“When you look at their access to higher education data and their retention and graduation rates they are quite low compared to other Asian Americans,” said Kim of the Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander groups. “In fact, if you look at national data, Cambodians, Laotians and Hmongs have one of the lowest access to higher education rates and have one of the lowest retention rates, but no one really talks about these populations or these communities because they are often lumped with other Asians and people see Asians as high achievers who need absolutely no support. That’s clearly not the case for these groups.

“It’s going to take some time to do it, but it’s my hope that in 10-15 years access to higher education and degree attainment gaps that we see between East Asians and Southeast Asians, for example, would be closed almost completely,” he added. “We need to talk about access issues, expanding access to higher education for underserved Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but at the same time we need to think about once they get here what are some support services we can provide so that they can be successful.”

State-funded outreach and retention programs like the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) provide support services—academic and career advising, tutoring and peer mentoring—to all first-generation and low-income students, including AAPI students. But with roughly 700 Cambodian-American students at CSULB, the largest number of Cambodian-American students on a single campus in the CSU, the focus on that group needs to be keener and, to some extent, customized.


At a recent Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative event were (l-r) student Rachel Guevarra, student Ryan Ly, Educational Opportunity Program academic counselor Annabelle Arciva and student Sochetra Hong.

“One of the challenges of this initiative is the diversity and complexity of the AAPI community as a whole,” said Annabelle Arciva, an academic counselor in the campus’ EOP. “There are over 40 ethnic subgroups within this large AAPI community, and each ethnic group has its own distinct history, language and culture. This initiative is presented with a challenge of implementing intentional and culturally sensitive outreach efforts that can meet the needs of each ethnic community. What works for one community may not necessarily work for the other.”

Recent statistics show CSULB has enrolled 102 Cambodian-American students in EOP and they have an average six-year graduation rate of 57.7 percent dating back to 2003. That’s compared with 46.2 percent for Cambodian-American students who did not participate in EOP, so support services do make a difference.

So what’s being done to expand access to higher education to underserved AAPI groups and increase retention and graduation rates for underserved Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at CSULB? Partnerships with CBOs such as the United Cambodian Community, Khmer Girls in Action and Khmer Arts Academy, is key according to Kim.

“We provide workshops at CBOs where more individuals have access and generally come to on a regular basis,” said Kim. “We need to make sure we provide various outreach programs for not only students but also their parents. Sometimes parents don’t know what college is all about because they are first-generation immigrants and often don’t understand how financial aid works. We need to provide information to students so they know what they need to do to prepare for college—which includes taking the proper courses to qualify. And we need to make sure that parents understand that college is affordable.”

Kim pointed out that parents quite often make the wrong assumption about the affordability of college. Paying for tuition and books can seem daunting, but because at the income level they are at they’re not going to pay much to have their child attend college because most of those costs will be covered by financial aid.

Another key piece of the initiative is the Journey to Success program, which is designed to provide students and families from underserved AAPI communities with important information about preparing for, applying to and graduating from college, and maybe most importantly give them a taste of college life.

“Not only do we do workshops at various organizations, but we also invite students and parents to our campus so they can experience what college life is all about,” said Kim. “To many, especially parents, college is an intimidating place so they don’t see it as a place where they can come and just look around. That can be a huge mental barrier.”

To break down that barrier, students and parents were invited to attend a Journey to Success event at CSULB, and also had an opportunity to dine in a campus cafeteria and attend a basketball game in The Pyramid.

“It’s a college experience for them and it’s so important because many of them have no idea what college life is like,” said Kim. “By providing these kinds of support services at least they have the opportunity to know and understand what college education is all about.”