Story by EMILY RODRIGUEZ-VARGAS
The life of an immigrant or refugee means facing financial, safety and cultural challenges all along the way of the journey. This includes leaving one’s home country to adopt another country and culture as one’s own. The legacy these trials imprint on families of immigrants still has its traces throughout the education system.
Gerald Brown, director of the Utah Office of Refugee Services, said of those who have come to the U.S., “They are very smart people, and they are going to do everything they can to live a better life here.”
According to the 2006 report compiled by the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs, 2 percent of Utahns are Asian. Of that number, 1.6 percent is in public schools, and that same percentage of students will graduate from high school. With their background and history, many of them will also have the drive to live up to their parents’ legacy.
Kathleen Villanueva, 19, is a political science and economics major at the University of Utah. She was born in the Philippines, but spent the majority of her life in the U.S. because her parents sought out a life out of the poverty at home. When still at Northridge High School in Layton, Utah, they expected her to maintain a 4.0 GPA.
“If I brought home a grade lower than that, I knew I’d be grounded,” she said. Challenging her parents and higher authorities just wasn’t an option. Villanueva carries on this high standard for herself as she maintains a nearly perfect GPA to keep her scholarship at the U.
Emily Park Grady is a doctoral candidate in the School of Music whose family moved to the U.S. when she was a toddler. In Korean culture, Grady said that knowledge itself shows sophistication and is held in very high regard. This prized experience and wisdom is no small thing.
Although she did always succeed in school, she said that she had a different experience than Villanueva even though her parents didn’t push her in academics. Growing up in New York City, Grady had a lot of friends who, like herself, were from Korea.
“The real pressure wasn’t really coming from my parents, it was just keeping up with my friends,” she said. “There was an immense peer pressure and competition among the people I hung out with.”
Wesley Sakaki-Uemura, an associate professor of history at the U whose grandparents emigrated from Japan, said the expectations set on students by family members is often significant. But there is also the unrealistic perspective for Asian Americans returning to their home country. He said there is a notion that people who look Asian automatically speak their family’s native language and know about all of the cultural norms and traditions they didn’t grow up with.
Funding for college could possibly be more accessible through wise saving by parents, or students may receive scholarships for their academic endeavors. Roger Tsai, an immigration attorney in Salt Lake City, said many Asian parents are more willing to pay for their children’s undergraduate and graduate degrees because they might not have had the chance to access higher education themselves.
Vinh Thanh Ma, 26, left Vietnam with her family at the age of 13. She received her Bachelor of Science in biology and medical laboratory science at the U on a full-ride five-year Utah Opportunity Scholarship.
Ma said when she saw this was a land of opportunity, she wanted to get the best education and life she could. “Discipline and determination were all I brought with me,” she said. “I was able to advance faster than most students that have everything coming too easy in life for them.”
Realizing her parents’ hardship in trying to support her family and provide Ma and her siblings with an education, she said she wanted to do well in school because her parents went through so much to get her there. Ma said she set herself goals like achieving excellent grades to get into a good school. “I did it for my parents without realizing it was for my own good in the future,” she said.
Alysha Franz Lagaras, 18, a Filipina student at the University of Utah, has a similar story. She was born in the U.S. after her parents left their home to start a new life. Her life wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for her mother.
Lagaras said her mom was an example to her for her diligence and persistence. “She worked so hard to be where she is now,” she said of her mom, who was the first in their family to leave the Philippines and to get a college education. “When we moved to Utah, my mom was raising my brother and I by herself.”
About growing up in Utah, she said, “I noticed how different I was not for just being Asian, but also being a part of the LDS church, being a different race other than being white.” She also said that society often has the wrong image of what it means to be Asian. “For being an Asian girl, they really expect you to look the part, like to be tiny and skinny.”
One of Lagaras’ pet peeves is being stereotyped for being smart and loving videogames and Hello Kitty. “Even though I do, I just hate how people think they know you because all Asians are the same.”
She said now she’s older, she regrets not learning her native language, Tagalog. When she was in elementary school, Lagaras tried to convince her peers that she was Mexican so they wouldn’t make fun of her “chinky” eyes. “When you’re a child, you just want to fit in,” she said.
“Now I love being Asian, when you’re older and more mature, you notice that you should love being different, standing out and being exotic.”