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Focusing on the Underserved: Immigrant, Refugee, and Indigenous Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Higher Education

reviewed by Yung-Yi Diana Pan - March 01, 2018

coverTitle: Focusing on the Underserved: Immigrant, Refugee, and Indigenous Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Higher Education
Author(s): Sam D. Museus,‎ Amefil Agbayani,‎ & Doris M. Ching (Eds.)
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1681236168, Pages: 294, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

As faculty and administrators in Hawai’i, Sam D. Museus, Amefil Agbayani, and Doris M. Ching occupy a unique perspective to critically think about the experiences of Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) college students. Their book, Focusing on the Underserved: Immigrant, Refugee, and Indigenous Asian-American and Pacific Islanders in Higher Education, underscores the many concerns that affect these often overlooked and understudied communities. The chapters in this volume address race consciousness and racism, policies that critically advance access to and retention in higher education, and effective institutional resources. These topics are not only timely, but they also shed light on pressing issues within higher education that hinder full inclusion of Asian American/Pacific Islanders.


Divided into three sections, this edited volume describes the various ways that racism, institutional practices, and a lack of disaggregated data further disenfranchise particular Asian American/Pacific Islander communities. I especially appreciate how the articles in Part One underscore an understanding of race and racism beyond a black/white binary. Sumun L. Pendakur and Vijay Pendakur call for a racial consciousness that weaves together distinct Asian ethnic communities. The authors contend that a trifecta of panethnic AAPI race consciousness, the model minority image, and mainstream race-based discourse renders invisible AAPI college students and their experiences. A cohesive racialized identity then mitigates superficial misunderstandings about this vibrant community. Scholars of race and ethnicity, especially within the social sciences and education, could benefit from reading these chapters as they assess the content of their own courses and identify ways to be more inclusive of AAPI communities.


Part Two examines the varied ways that race-conscious policies have been enacted. The authors in this section describe successful practices at their respective institutions. Answering the “so what?” question that often belabors topics of inquiry, this part focuses on underrepresented AAPIs; the undocumented, refugee, and indigenous students. Policies that are student-focused, evoke storytelling, and involve ethnic-specific communities tend to contribute to a stronger sense of belonging. In particular, Natasha Saelua, Erine Kahunawaika’ala Wright, Keali’i Troy Kukahiko, Meg Malpaya Thornton, and Iosefa Aina describe a student-initiated, student-run outreach program in California that focuses on retaining Pacific Islander students. As a group, Pacific Islanders (including Chamorro, Palauan, and Native Hawai’ians, to name a few) drop out of high school at higher rates than their Asian American or white counterparts. The Pacific Islanders Education and Retention (PIER) program emerged from a need to address issues specific to Pacific Islander communities. The authors find tremendous success with the program, and that students in PIER feel affirmed and validated in their identities, especially due to the peer-to-peer model. Along the same vein, William Collins, Anna Chiang, Joshua Fisher, and Marie P. Ting highlight the value of peer mentorship for Hmong-American college students. These articles demonstrate the implicit value of peer role models for student success in secondary schools and in college.


Oral histories and storytelling are paramount within many AAPI communities. Contributing authors share successes in the use of storytelling to engage AAPI college students, and also stress the importance of social biographies. Jeffrey Tangonan Acido, Jennifer Farrales Custodio, and Gordon Lee emphasize reimagining pedagogy so that it speaks to AAPIs and affirms “the communities from which AAPI students come and allows them to engage their own stories and communities as sites of knowledge production” (p. 148). Similarly, working with ethnic communities permits bolstering ethnic and scholastic confidence. Mary Ann Takemoto, Simon Kim, Karen Nakai, and Karen Quintiliani focus on addressing college success among Cambodian American students by working with community members who are more equipped with knowledge about ethnic-specific histories and current issues that affect them. Identifying and working with ethnic-specific communities may require some outreach, but the outcome serves not only the communities in question, but also the entire campus culture. These two chapters could be especially useful to administrators concerned about outreach and retention of AAPI students.


Part Three of this volume gives voice to marginalized AAPI students. Centering Southeast Asian and Indigenous Hawai’ian experiences, the chapters in this section highlight complexities of identity negotiation and representation. While V. Leilani Kupo addresses the performance and language surrounding Native Hawai’ian identity politics, Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy identifies the ways that Southeast Asian students are nearly invisible at their institutions. Both authors suggest ways to think about identity as ascribed and asserted, and provide recommendations to better represent and understand these communities. Administrators and professors too often generalize AAPIs as only highly educated Chinese, Japanese, or Koreans. Disrupting the dominant “model minority” image, these authors allow readers to peer into the complex lives and negotiations of specific AAPI communities.


Overall, this volume is no doubt a necessary intervention within literature about not only Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but also higher education and American race relations more generally. Most literature on racial disparities within higher education neglects to mention Asian Americans or groups them with whites, and the literature that does include Asian Americans neglects to disaggregate based on ethnicity. Focusing on the Underserved fills that gap, and the authors should be commended for doing so. While the chapters spoke to AAPI experiences in Hawai’i, California, and Michigan, readers need to be mindful that regional context will garner different experiences for AAPIs. In other words, the experiences and practices shared in this volume are not generalizable to AAPI communities in all corners of the United States. Also, another “underserved” community to perhaps consider for future iterations or expansion is that of transnational adoptees from China, Vietnam, South Korea, India, and other Asian countries who are often excluded from discourse about Asian Americans.


At its core, Focusing on the Underserved examines the nuanced experiences of immigrant, refugee, and indigenous AAPI students that are often overlooked, understudied, and marginalized. The contributors not only underscore vast issues important to Asian American and Pacific Islanders in higher education, but also provide practical suggestions for advocacy and broader policy changes. This book is a must-read, if not a must-have, for those invested in racial equality and inclusive educational policies.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 01, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22290, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:23:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Yung-Yi Diana Pan
    Brooklyn College
    E-mail Author
    YUNG-YI DIANA PAN is an assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. Her research interests intersect race and ethnicity, immigrant adaptation, professional education, and professions. Her book, Incidental Racialization: Performative Assimilation in Law School (Temple University Press, 2017) examines the socialization of Asian American and Latino law students as racialized immigrants entering an elite profession. She is extending this line of inquiry in a new project that explores how race matters for professionals specifically doctors, lawyers, and financial professionals.
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