LOWELL, Mass. — After her first-ever class at Middlesex Community College last fall, Socheata Mam sank into a couch with her backpack in the main building’s lobby. The 19-year-old Cambodian immigrant was overwhelmed, realizing she had committed to a full load of five classes and her 30-hour-a-week job as a grocery cashier.
They had never had a chance to go to college because the Khmer Rouge not only committed genocide of more than 1.7 million Cambodians from 1975-79, they also cut off educational opportunities for many of those who survived.
Mam, who immigrated to the United States at age 9, said she believed she had to rely on herself for everything at her college in Lowell, Massachusetts, home to the nation’s second largest Cambodian population.
But Virak Uy, a Cambodian refugee who is the director of the college’s new Program for Asian American Student Advancement, had no intention of letting her flounder. He urged Mam to stop by the Asian American Connections Center, which opened in 2017 to help Southeast Asian students.
At the center, Mam could use the computers, eat lunch, use some of the sriracha hot sauce stocked in the minifridge and hang out with other Asian students. She could get tutoring, academic advising and financial aid tips and maybe eventually shed that feeling that she was on the outside looking in, the same experience Uy had a few decades ago as a freshman at Boston College.
During the spring semester, Mam went to the connections center every day after classes. Uy, whose desk faces the entrance, was usually the first person she saw, and just behind him covering most of the back wall was a 10-foot-wide by 5-foot high painting of Angkor Wat, a 12th-century Cambodian temple complex. Mam’s family has a smaller version of a similar painting in their living room.
“The center feels like another home. I go in there, do my homework, talk to them about my days,” Mam said. “It gives me a sense of comfort in a way, just because there are a lot of familiar faces here.”
Southeast Asians, researchers say, are the fastest-growing ethnic or racial group in community colleges and enter college with a number of issues — including poverty, limited English skills, and post-traumatic stress from fleeing the aftermath of wars in Vietnam and Laos and the genocide in Cambodia.
These students have as high a risk of dropping out of college as low-income Hispanic or African-American students, researchers say. Yet colleges and policymakers often do not realize it because Southeast Asian students’ statistics are lumped in as part of overall Asian student performance. Their problems are hidden partly because of the model minority myth that all Asians are academic superstars and flourish in high school and college.
“That’s often what we hear about Asian-Americans. ‘They’re not our problematic students,'” said Robert Teranishi, co-director of the Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education at UCLA. “When we talk about students of color and programs to support students of color, a lot of times Asian-Americans haven’t historically been included.”
Middlesex, which has campuses in the Boston suburbs of Bedford and Lowell, received a $1.7 million, five-year grant awarded to 14 colleges in 2016 to improve the academic performance of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The college has focused its efforts on its campus in Lowell, about 20 miles northwest of Boston, because of its large Southeast Asian presence. Middlesex has roughly 8,200 students, including 13.1 percent who are Asian, 17 percent Hispanic, 8 percent black, and 56 percent white. Asian students’ transfer rates — 39 percent — were consistently lower than the 42.3 percent average for all other groups at Middlesex, according to U.S. Education Department data.
But Middlesex officials were largely unaware that Asian students were struggling so much.
Asian-American students, interviewed in focus groups, told educators at the college how isolated and stressed they felt. Some ventured into a multicultural center at the school before the Asian student center opened, but rarely stayed because of the lack of Asians. They said they did not believe professors understood their culture and history, a problem Middlesex is hoping to resolve with faculty training.
“How do we talk about the killing fields and how are we aware of students in our classroom who might have some PTSD? It’s having a larger awareness of this population,” said Pamela Flaherty, Middlesex’s chief student affairs officer and dean of students.
Several students said it helped to hear Uy’s story. He, like Mam and many of the center’s other regulars, had to learn English as a second language. His first language is Khmer, which Cambodians pronounce ka-mai to distinguish the word from the French-pronounced Khmer (ke-mare) as in the Khmer Rouge.
Middlesex also created an intensive English language institute, hoping to work with Cambodians of all ages struggling to learn English.
Uy, 44, said he immigrated to the United States around age 9 from a refugee camp in Thailand. He was only 3 or 4 when he and his family fled their home with only the clothes on their backs and went to work in labor camps.
At Middlesex, he brought students, their families, community members and faculty together in February to watch a screening of Angelina Jolie’s film, “First They Killed My Father,” the story of a young Cambodian girl’s experience during the genocide. He participated in a panel discussion, opening a dialogue that few students had ever had with their family members.
Karonika Brown, 34, who graduated with an associate degree from Middlesex in 2016 then remained on campus working and taking classes, went to the film.
“I was bawling — it was awful because I could relate to so much of it,” said Brown, who first started taking classes at Middlesex in 2005 when she was 22 and the single mother of a toddler.
She was born in Cambodia in 1983 after the genocide, but both of her parents had been in internment camps. Her mother lost two babies to starvation. Her father died in a refugee camp in Thailand when Brown was 2. Her mother never recovered emotionally, and Brown, who is married now, takes care of her mother as well as her three children, ages 7, 11 and 13.
She has dropped in and out of college because of finances and stress. She was recently accepted to Simmons College but decided it was too costly. She plans to transfer to the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, in the fall of 2019, get a bachelor’s degree in education and become a teacher.
Mam said she never knew what her parents and grandparents endured in Cambodia until I interviewed her, her mother and stepfather at their home in Chelmsford, which borders Lowell. Mam’s two grandmothers and two of her three older stepsiblings also live there.
Mam’s mother, Prumsour Sinn, said she was 3 or 4 when the Khmer Rouge came. She and her family stayed in the capital city of Phnom Penh, and what she remembers most is the fear. She was not allowed to go outside.
Sinn, who never went beyond high school, divorced Mam’s father when her daughter was 1, and in 2008 married Kosal Sinn, who already lived in America.
Kosal Sinn was still in high school when the Khmer Rouge came. “We walked in a line of people, barefoot. Sometime, people sit down, not eating, die,” he said, searching for the words he wanted to say in English to describe his family’s forced march to a labor camp.
Mam said it was helpful for her to learn about her parents’ past — a past that might indirectly add to the pressure she felt to thrive in college. Her parents want her to finish community college, transfer to a four-year school and get a good job. But they both work full-time in factory jobs to support the family, and they cannot help with college bills.
Mam applied for financial aid in the fall but did not receive it, and she paid the $3,000 in tuition and fees herself. At Uy’s suggestion, she took four classes in the spring semester and worked fewer hours. She took out a $600 loan to help with college — she works full shifts Fridays through Sundays.
“Sometimes when I go to work, I go to school, I think it’s overwhelming,” said Mam, who wants to pursue a career in criminal justice. “I get so stressed out when I think about how am I going to make it to the next step.”
But if she runs into trouble, she knows she will make the center, and Uy, her first stop.
“He’s always there,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.