Cambodian-American Scholarship

Jamie Tieng

What Challenges do Cambodian-American communities face
and what would you do
to help resolve them?

By Jamie Tieng

      Growing up as a Cambodian American, I believe the critical problem that the community faces today among the youth is their lack of higher education, with only 9.2% obtains a Bachelors degree. I often find myself the only Cambodian American in most of my high school classes. To resolve this problem, I believe the youth should participate in educational programs that are designed to help many children obtain an education starting from middle school to high school in order to increase the number of college bound youth. Such programs include Upward Bound Math Science (UBMS), EAOP, Talent Search, other programs to help low-income first-generation-to-college on equal opportunity to succeed through completion of school and higher education. From my experience in UBMS at the university of California, Berkeley, I gained exposure to college life while as a participant of their Summer Residential Program. I lived in the dorms and took classes on campus to prepare me for the next school year at my high school. This program in which that I am involved is designed to help low-income first generation attend a four year university and many of the resources they provide are free, such as tutoring and academic counselors to make sure that I am on track to graduate and attend a college. Coming from economically disadvantage family and overcrowded school, like many Cambodians in my position, I gained the personal attention that I needed to be on the right path. These programs, such as my experience, can help many Cambodian Americans in their struggle with their educational career.
      Another benefit of these educational programs is that Cambodian American youth can be exposed to professional career and interests. When I was a participant of the UBMS program, I attended workshops that motivated students in either the math or science field. The guest speakers were professionals who had first-generation-to-college, low-income backgrounds, like mine. In addition to explaining about potential careers, these mentors provided motivational encouragement to help me achieve my goals. During one workshop in particular, the guest speaker was Dr. John Matsui, the director of the UC Berkeley Biology Scholars program, which helps first-generation-to-college and low-income students majoring in biology complete their degrees at the university. Dr. Matsui brought several of his students to give speeches. One student had a particularly personal dedication to cancer research. I was interested in the way his personal experiences inspired him to pursue a career dedicated to curing cancer. I understood how a person¬ís perspective could become a motivating factor in choosing a career that helps others. I realized that my own disability motivated me to pursue a career researching the very genetic causes of my disability. I knew from that moment what my future career would be. Due to this experience, I was exposed to some of the research in biology to develop my interest in genetics. This is vital for the Cambodian American community to have mentors because this allows the youth options such the ones I was given to explore the possibility of professional careers.
      The problem is more grave than just education and mentorship. It begins with childhood in the community as many of these families live below the poverty level. Therefore, many of the children, without aid of these educational programs, become exposed to gang life instead. Many of our parents have suffered the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge regime and the U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War and in hopes of escape, they came to the United States for their children to have better lives. Unfortunately, many of these families relocated in poor neighborhoods with little government support to maintain a standard way of living in the U.S. As a result, these parents often work overtime without seeing their children. Thus, many of these children join these gangs. The formation of Cambodian gangs came when the people immigrated to the U.S. and were equally impoverished people who saw the Cambodian as foreigners being harass. Therefore, copying off the gang culture that was already establish in the country, the youth form gangs of their own. Unfortunately, they became disruptive in the community and it only created a bad images of the Cambodian people. As a result, I saw many of my friends cutting class at school and eventually getting in trouble with the law. Education for the most part was not a priority for them. The gang life has guided the youth away from the important reason why their parents immigrated to this country in the first place.
      There should be after school programs to directly resolve this issue among these children. Of course many of the education programs such as Talent Search and EAOP do not start in elementary school, thus preschool — sixth grade programs serve as a stepping stone before these youth go to middle school. Such programs can include variety of sports game, tutorial service, and cultural programs. However, among the Cambodian American youth to become educated in our heritage, I believe there should be Khmer cultural school. A cultural school will prevent gang association by creating after school programs and weekend sessions that keep students off the streets. Additionally, Khmer cultural school will help students form a sense of identity by teaching them to be fluent in the Khmer language, performing dancing and music, creating and displaying traditional clothing and food. This will instill in the Children a sense of pride in being Cambodian American which will preserve cultural values and help avoid the temptation of illegal activates.
      Although I strongly believe that retention programs are the solution, I also believe that the extended family should commit to motivating and seeing their children succeed. In the Cambodian American community, many low-income parents work long hours, but other relatives can form support system for children to keep them safe and provide guidance. My aunts and uncles provided a secure foundation for me to study and grow even though I seldom saw my mother. I believe that the same unity that help our community survive in Cambodia will help our community thrive in America.