If you were to ask me in high school where I saw myself in six years, I would have been unable to answer. I graduated from Luther Burbank High School, a public school in a low-income area of south Sacramento, California in 2010. When graduation came closer, I knew I, as a Hmong woman, had two options. The first option was to get married, be a nyab (daughter in law), and take care of the family while my husband went to work. But in the Hmong culture, a nyab is expected to perform all expectations and duties without being asked. She holds no power and is often judged and criticized by her husband’s family. Her first responsibility is to take care of her husband and his family. A nyab is submissive to her husband and takes care of her husband’s needs before her own. I knew this was not the life I wanted to live because I had witnessed my mother endure numerous challenges as a wife and mother. Instead, I took a second option—I decided to use school as the ignition to follow my dreams.
Although college was a foreign concept to me, I decided that I would learn as I went. In the fall of 2010, I started my college career at Sacramento State, an Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI) and now recently a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). As the first in my family to attend college, I did not know how to navigate the college educational system. Fortunately, I was enrolled in equity programs that serve low-income, first-generation college students like myself. I joined the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), a program that aims to help students achieve their college goals by providing services needed to be successful in college. I received support for admissions assistance, a special orientation to the university by EOP staff who also helped me picked my class schedule, and help understanding the general education requirements needed to graduate. I was assigned a designated academic counselor to support me with academic advising, personal counseling, and tutoring. If there were anything that went wrong with my financial aid package, the EOP counselor was also there to help me work through the problem.
In high school, I was not given the correct support to prepare me to do well in college, so when I finally got to Sacramento State, I was lacking skills such as studying and time management. But thankfully I had a peer mentor to help guide me and I was able to participate in the college’s EOP learning community where I got to take classes with my peers. When I needed help, they were also there to support me. What made EOP most comfortable was the fact the counselors and staff came from backgrounds similar to mine. They empathized with the challenges I was facing at home and school. This was especially important because they understood how to effectively give me the support I needed.
In addition to EOP, I also participated in the Full Circle Project (FCP), a program funded by the AANAPISI grant from the U.S. Department of Education. I learned of FCP when I was already a junior in college, but I was not as involved on campus. However, FCP taught me the importance of campus engagement through leadership programs, clubs, organizations, and community. Although I was not a student in the program, I found ways to get involved. I gained confidence in myself as a student, gained a better sense of my identity, and learned about leadership skills through the professional development events and activities. FCP invited Asian Pacific Islander (API) speakers with backgrounds similar to mine. Some of the speakers talked about the challenges they faced and it showed me that despite the cultural and gender barriers I continue to face as a Hmong woman, if I believe in myself, anything can be possible. I became hopeful and dreamed even bigger than before. I was given the opportunity to work as a peer mentor for FCP to support first-generation API college students to navigate the college system.
With the support I received from EOP, I was able to come full circle by supporting students just like how I was assisted when I first entered college. I also participated in programs like the CSU Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative where I developed a heightened awareness of my identity. By exploring my own identity, I became more confident and was no longer ashamed of my Hmong background. I organized a group of student ambassadors and went out to the local high schools to talk to students about our experiences in college. We talked to students one-on-one about how college helped change our lives and how they too could make it into college.
I graduated Sacramento State in May 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies and a concentration in Asian American Studies. Now, in May 2016, I have graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with my master’s degree in higher education. By attending a Minority Serving Institution, I learned the skills necessary to excel in a Predominantly White Institution. Six years ago, I could not have even imagined myself moving across the country for school, but through the support of EOP and FCP, I am now able to dream, achieve and inspire.
I challenge funders, policymakers, and higher education leaders to include API students when developing academic support programs. Our country needs to understand that the model minority myth is not true and that it does not represent all 48 API ethnic groups. More importantly, we need to invest in Sacramento State and other AANAPISIs because these institutions are playing a central role serving high concentrations of low-income, first-generation API students. Take it from me—without these institutions, I would have been stuck going in circles instead of coming full circle with my education and helping other students succeed in the process.
Jennifer Yang is a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a research assistant at the Center for Minority Serving Institutions.