LOWELL, Mass. – UMass Lowell has received nearly $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education to create a center that supports the university’s Asian American and Pacific Islander students, most of whom come from Southeast Asian refugee families that have settled in and around Lowell.
The five-year grant will allow the university to open the new Asian American Center for Engagement and Excellence (AACEE, pronounced “ace”), which will offer staff and peer mentoring support in accessing financial aid and academic, career and wellness services.
A growing number of Southeast Asian students have enrolled at UMass Lowell over the past decade and the university wants to help bridge financial, language and cultural barriers so more of them can successfully complete college, according to Julie Nash, vice provost for academic affairs, who is leading the initiative.
“Now that we have this grant, thanks to years of foundational work by UMass Lowell faculty and staff participating in this project, Asian American students will know that this is a place where they’ll be supported and have programs in place to help them thrive,” Nash said.
Along with Nash, the team includes UMass Lowell’s Sue Kim, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; Education Associate Prof. Phitsamay Uy; and Leslie Wong, dean of equity and inclusion. Kim and Uy co-direct the UMass Lowell Center for Asian American Studies, where the project originated, while Wong leads the Office of Multicultural Affairs. UMass Lowell’s Robin Toof, co-director of the Center for Community Research and Engagement, will evaluate the new center and its programs.
UMass Lowell became eligible to apply for the grant as a “minority-serving institution,” in this case, a higher-education institution where at least 10% of students are Asian American or Pacific Islanders and where there is demonstrated financial need among that population.
According to the most recent available data, 13% of UML undergraduates identify as Asian American, while fewer than 1% are Pacific Islanders. Many Asian Americans are transfer students from Middlesex Community College, also an Asian American and Pacific Islander serving institution.
Uy said Asian Americans overall have a reputation as an academically and financially successful “model minority,” largely because data on Southeast Asians is lumped together with data on ethnic East Asians (family countries of origin include China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea) and South Asians (India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh).
“It makes it look like we’re all doing well and don’t need help, but that’s not true,” Uy said. “Southeast Asian students need more personal care and attention due to their families’ lack of familiarity with the educational system. They often don’t have mentors who look like them and speak their (home) languages, and they are financially disadvantaged.”
Many Asian American students at UMass Lowell come from Southeast Asian refugee families who lost everything – family members, land, possessions, livelihoods and years of schooling – during the Vietnam War, the CIA’s secret war in Laos, or the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, said Uy, who was born in Laos. Other South Asian and East Asian American students tend to come to UMass Lowell from middle-class and wealthy communities.
Lowell has the second largest population of Cambodian Americans in the U.S., as well as significant numbers of Vietnamese, Hmong and Lao refugees and more recent refugees from Myanmar. These refugee families have suffered serious trauma, and that affects their children in multiple ways, Uy said.
AACEE will build on the successful programs in UMass Lowell’s Center for Asian American Studies and those offered by the Office of Multicultural Affairs. The center will partner with community organizations that can help bridge language and cultural gaps with families, Kim said. AACEE also will create mentoring programs and opportunities, drawing on successful Asian American alumni and community members who can serve as role models for current students.
A portion of the grant money – $10,000 each year for five years, which the university must match through donations – will establish an endowment for scholarships for Southeast Asian American students. Uy and the new AACEE project director will provide cultural competency training for faculty and staff.
“We see this initiative as integral to the university’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Plan. UMass Lowell has been building and will continue to build programs to equip all our students to succeed,” Kim said.
The biggest barriers to college success among Southeast Asian Americans are low expectations and services in high school and a lack of family support, according to Uy.
“If your high school doesn’t prepare you and your family doesn’t support you, and now you’re at a school where you don’t have anyone who knows your name or your story, one bad bump in the road can cause you to leave college,” Uy says. “With our center, we hope they will see a familiar face and find the support they need.”
UMass Lowell is a national research university located on a high-energy campus in the heart of a global community. The university offers its students bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, humanities, sciences and social sciences. UMass Lowell delivers high-quality educational programs, vigorous hands-on learning and personal attention from leading faculty and staff, all of which prepare graduates to be leaders in their communities and around the globe. www.uml.edu