Diversity and Equity in Education is the Future Southeast Asian Students Deserve

Washington, DC – SEARAC denounces the Supreme Court’s decision to roll-back the use of affirmative action in higher education. Southeast Asian American (SEAA) students, as do many other Asian American students, benefit from race-conscious affirmative action. These policies allow our students’ full potential to be seen including their experiences, backgrounds, and race.

SEAA students are uniquely impacted by systemic racial inequity leaving them overlooked and misunderstood. They are descendants of the largest refugee community ever resettled in America as survivors of war, genocide, and trauma that impact their educational outcomes. When racial data is disaggregated, it shows that SEAA students graduate at lower rates than other students. For instance, the 2010 Census shows that more than 60% of Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong Americans do not have a bachelor’s degree, as do more than 50% of Vietnamese Americans. Affirmative action policies allow schools to take these students’ experiences into consideration and close the college gap in our communities. SEARAC’s executive director and board respond to the decision below:

“My family’s experience as refugees has shaped our lives. My parents risked their lives to be free including the freedom to learn. For Southeast Asian communities, that freedom to learn comes from inclusive and equitable education policies that take into consideration the trauma and scars we carry across generations,” said Quyên Đinh, executive director of SEARAC. “We condemn this decision that ignores the barriers to education we face. We will continue to fight for policies that help Southeast Asian students, including the right to be seen through disaggregated data and ethnic studies. With communities across the country, we will fight for a future where every individual, regardless of their life circumstances, can thrive and succeed.”

“Sharing my identity as a first generation Montagnard student in my application to UNC-Chapel Hill was pivotal in honoring my identity and the challenges that my family and I faced as refugees from Vietnam,” said Phun H, SEARAC communications associate. “The Court’s decision would have seriously limited my alma mater from seeing the full scope of my story, including the real impacts of the racist barriers my family faced. My hope is that, no matter what, my community can continue to tell our narratives and join the fight to increase high-quality education opportunities for all students.” 

“SEARAC remains committed to promoting and preserving educational opportunities for students of color. As a Hmong American, my identity as a refugee from Southeast Asia is an inherently racialized experience,” said Kabo Yang, SEARAC board chair. “We, like the 69% of Asian voters who support the use of race in admissions, know the value of diversity. SEARAC joins with other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and marginalized communities and remains committed to equity and diversity in education.”

“As a first generation college student, I saw first hand the obstacles that many Cambodian American youth face in accessing higher education,” said Seng So, SEARAC board member. “Our community will not be divided or weaponized by modern-day segregationists and opponents of progress. We call upon higher education institutions to act swiftly to strengthen all efforts, including outreach and recruitment initiatives, to underrepresented communities; so that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, feel welcomed, valued, and empowered to contribute their unique perspectives.”

Mike Hoa Nguyen, PhD, SEARAC board member & assistant professor of education at New York University stated, “Race is inextricably linked to our identities. SCOTUS’ decision does not prevent students from uplifting and sharing their lived experiences in their college admissions essays. And we urge prospective SEAA college applicants to continue sharing stories of their inherited refugee and immigrant legacies. As advocates of education equity, we remain steadfast in our support for policies that will expand opportunity for Southeast Asian American youth.”

“In order to undo racial inequalities in educational opportunity, we need solutions that address race and racism head on, like affirmative action,” said Roseryn Bhudsabourg, SEARAC board member. “And our efforts can’t stop there. We need to invest far more in our school systems so that Southeast Asian American students, and all students of color, have a high quality education – at every level and no matter what path they choose to take. I am a proud alumna of the Asian Pacific American Leadership Institute (APALI) at De Anza College. My community college uplifted my identity as a Thai-Lao American, and this empowered me to accomplish so much to give back to my communities in California. SEARAC remains committed to ensuring that our public schools, colleges, and universities cherish and value Southeast Asian American students’ identities and histories.”

Read more about the experiences of Southeast Asian students in SEARAC’s and IHEP’s “Everyone Deserves to be Seen” report. For additional information about Southeast Asian Americans, you can read SEARAC and Advancing Justice – Los Angeles’ “Southeast Asian American Journeys” report.

SEARAC Applauds Bipartisan ASPIRE Act to Increase Access and Completion in Higher Education

SEARAC strongly supports the ASPIRE Act, a bipartisan education equity bill introduced yesterday by Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA). The ASPIRE Act aims to increase low-income students’ access to post-secondary education and raise graduation rates for all students by setting bare-minimum standards for access and completion for colleges participating in federal loan programs. The bill would incentivize colleges, including minority-serving institutions, to make sure more low-income students are enrolling and completing their degrees. This would help close equity gaps for all students, including Southeast Asian American students who face multiple barriers to higher education.
Southeast Asian American students have some of the lowest education attainment rates in the country. Only 14.5% Cambodians, 13.9% Hmong, 13.4% Lao, and 20.4% Vietnamese American adults have a bachelor’s degree, compared to all Asian Americans at 29.9% and the overall U.S. population at 19.3%. [1] Poverty deters many Southeast Asian American students from pursuing a post-secondary education because of high tuition and non-tuition costs. 15.4% of Cambodian, 21.7% of Hmong, 11.4% of Lao, and 13.7% of Vietnamese Americans live below the poverty line, compared to all Asian Americans at 8.5% and the overall U.S. population at 10.0%.
The ASPIRE Act does not mandate specific improvement strategies. We recommend that institutions, at a minimum, adopt an improvement strategy that strengthens data-driven efforts to increase graduation rates and low-income students’ access to a post-secondary education. Collecting disaggregated race and ethnic data on all Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students can help achieve this goal for AAPI students. This will help institutions gain a better understanding of their AAPI students and better target resources to support these students to complete their education.
We applaud Senators Coons and Isakson for introducing a policy solution to stand up for vulnerable students, including Southeast Asian Americans and students from refugee, immigrant, and low-income communities.
Read the bill language and summary.
Read Sen. Coons’ press release quoting SEARAC’s executive director.


[1] 2016 1-year estimates, American Community Survey, US Census Bureau

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the AANAPISI Program

This week, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution (AANAPISI) program, which provides support for degree-granting higher-education institutions, including community colleges, that serve at least 10% Asian American and Pacific Islander students. Overall, AANAPISI institutions enroll 41% of the nation’s AAPI college students. The AANAPISI specifically funds programs that support low-income, first-generation AAPI students.
The AANAPISI program recognizes the challenges that Southeast Asian American (SEAA) students face. Our community has significantly lower college attainment rates compared to the rest of the nation. Nearly two-thirds of Cambodian Americans, Laotian Americans, and Hmong Americans have not attended college, and this is true for half of Vietnamese Americans. In the California State University system in 2013, 85% of Hmong and Laotian freshmen, 76% of Cambodian freshmen, and 71% of Vietnamese freshmen were the first in their family to go to college. SEAA students are entering higher education in greater numbers than ever before, but programs funded by AANAPISI help make sure our students have the support they need to graduate.
SEARAC is a proud co-sponsor of a Congressional resolution introduced by Congresswoman Judy Chu (CA-27), Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) to recognize and uplift the importance of the AANAPISI program.

Media Advisory: SEARAC joins hundreds of Asian American leaders to protect and promote data disaggregration

August 10, 2017

Mari Quenemoen
mari@searac.org, 202-601-2970

SEARAC Joins Broad AAPI Coalition to Protect Data Disaggregation from Divisive Tactics

This week, SEARAC joined the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans as part of 77 organizations, 180 community leaders, 105 students, and nearly 500 educators across the country in reaffirming our commitment to serving the diverse needs of our Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
We are deeply alarmed by recent opposition to the collection of detailed data on Asian Americans, with opponents comparing it to data collected by Nazi Germany to persecute Jews and single them out for genocide.
For over three decades, East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian American, and Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander leaders have called for detailed data collection to better serve AAPI populations in need. We have found time and again that detailed and accurate data collections — from the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies, to state and local agencies in health, education, and other issues — are essential to helping our communities in need.
As researchers, educators, advocacy organizations, and community leaders, we strive to understand the challenges faced by our student populations, and to serve and support their varied educational needs. We cannot do this without high-quality data.
For example, Cambodian, Laotian, Native Hawaiian, and Samoan Americans have among the lowest rates of graduation from community college. Mental health issues also vary across the Asian American population, with some groups such as Chinese American women showing higher rates of suicide than other Asian American groups. High-quality, detailed data is essential to understanding student challenges in all communities, and is vital to securing public and private resources to help students in need.
To compare the current effort to collect data on Asian Americans to the tactics of Nazi Germany is deceitful and misrepresentative of the goals and desires of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
Historically, Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans, have been at the forefront of calls for detailed data collection. The purpose of these data is not to single-out a group for persecution or surveillance, but to recognize and support all segments of our community, and to ensure that all students count in education.
As community organizations, educators, and leaders, we believe it is imperative to continue the push for high-quality, detailed data that can serve the diverse needs of our Asian American and Pacific Islander students.
The list of signatories to the open letters can be found here:
  1. Educators
  2. Organizations and community leaders
  3. Students