As I was heading home from work I ran into a Lao American student; he was maybe a couple years younger than I and after talking we remembered each other as children playing in the same neighborhood. He mentioned that he was wrapping up his degree this fall semester, but then he asked me a curious question, one that I have often asked myself: “Where are all the Lao students?”
His question, although not directly stating it, was alluding to the fact that amongst all the Asian American students that are seen on campus (here at the University of Minnesota), there is only a small number of Lao American students in higher education. I can attest to that fact because each summer I work at first-year orientation in the biggest college within the University of Minnesota and maybe one or two Lao American students would be on the lists—the whole summer. At one point this summer I also pondered that question, “Where are all the Lao students?”
I can only speculate and given some of my work in education I can back up my speculations with some data, but the fact is, there have not been many studies done on Lao American students—their learning, their experiences, their motivations (or lack thereof)—that could shed some light on that question. There are many intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I know that many Lao students want to go to college and have gone, but many have taken time off or stopped going altogether. So the intrinsic motivation is there. And, in conversations with most parents, I know that they want their children to go to college, thus putting value on education. So what’s the struggle?
Well, I know that like me, many Lao American students are first-generation and I can attest to lacking the skills and navigational tools as a challenge in understanding the University classroom culture. I was also low-income, and so most students may find that they need to also work to support the family, or themselves, putting a strain on academics in trying to balance that work and school life. Work then leads to making money and buying nice stuff—which can be a lot more enticing than going to school—and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is so hard to find as a student. And with being first-generation, my parents did not have an education beyond high school—from Laos—and so they struggled with English, and I often had to read their mail, make doctor appointments, and honor other demands that other students may not have to worry about. I know that these are the same issues that other immigrant communities face, so they are not unique to just the Lao community, but it does help to understand part of the answer.
So, where are all the Lao students? We are here. Today I celebrate the current Lao American students and I know we exist because I have been part of the Lao Student Association and continue to be part of it. We have a remarkable group of students with different interests and backgrounds, from business to engineering and from politics to dance. I want to acknowledge and congratulate two of our students here at the University of Minnesota, Donna Southa and Ricky Thonglyvong, on their achievements as well as recipients of this year’s Jai Lao Foundation Scholarship (like their Facebook page).
I work in education. I study education. I value education. And I’m proud of all the Lao American students who have achieved so much before me, paving the way and letting me know that I, too, can do the same. I know what it means to be a Lao American student and the challenges that come along with it. For those of us who have graduated I ask that you continue to learn and to help others learn and access higher education. And for those of us who are still in college or are thinking about going to college, take advantage of every opportunity you can to learn about who you are and what you can do; there is so much more out there.