Genesis | Diversity Column

Ay Saechao. Contributed photo

When I began college two decades ago, I wanted to be a geologist. I was fascinated by the theory of plate tectonics and its connection with land formation, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Early on, however, I discovered a more personal search. It began when I walked through the doors of the Asian Pacific American Education office of Oregon State University. A young Asian-American woman, Sho Shigeoka, approached me as I entered the Minority Education Office and asked me how she could help. At the time, I was looking for scholarships and academic opportunities. I got much more than I asked for.

I soon took up a work-study position in her office, assisting with filing and other office-related activities. Most of the time, the workdays seemed to be more of a counseling session. Shigeoka would ask me about my history and the experience of the Mienh people in our schools.

I told her stories of how the Mienh people supported U.S. CIA operatives during the Secret War in Laos and how we had to flee for our lives after the war ended. I shared that my parents’ family, in addition to the majority of Mienh people who landed in Portland, Oregon, relocated to the apartment project called Rose City Village, where many of us struggled with poverty, despair and cultural adjustment, while coping with the traumas of war that still crippled our community.

One of these stories greatly impacted my personal and professional trajectory. During the Parkrose High School commencement of 1997, I was proud to walk the stage to receive my diploma, but I was also troubled by the realization that so few Mienh peers and family members of mine had succeeded. Shigeoka took note of my concern and asked me, “What issues do you think exist with the Mienh people in our education system?” She requested a short essay within the week to answer this question.

I went to the computer lab soon after and searched the web for information on the Mienh people. I figured if I were to write a report about the issues of Mienh people, I better start off with writing about who we were and where we came from.

The hours rolled on as I read numerous articles. Hours became days, and days turned into weeks as I compiled my findings. Shigeoka must have thought I was a slacker. It was well over the one-week deadline, and there was nothing, no report, no essay on her desk.

I wasn’t slacking, though; instead, something amazing had happened. Three weeks after she asked the question, I provided her with my answer, “Iu-Mienh and Higher Education.” It was a 38-page report detailing the history of the Mienh people, with a summary and report of a survey I had conducted with Mienh high school and college students throughout the West Coast. Even the cover page was snazzy and shined with confidence.

I dropped it on her desk and left with a sense of solidarity. That moment was my genesis. I had found out who I was and what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

I spent the remaining years of my undergrad organizing and working in the community, both at Oregon State and in my hometown of Portland, to address educational issues of Mienh, Southeast Asian and other under-represented groups. I changed my major from geology to cultural anthropology with the intent to seek more answers. I believed if I could explore and support the educational success of other under-represented populations, then I may find answers for the Mienh people.

I took classes in anthropology, history, sociology and American ethnic studies, which further expanded my knowledge and perspective on race, education, society and culture. More importantly, they gave me an opportunity to examine what it meant to be a citizen of the United States and the world.

What began as a casual walk and search for scholarships at the Asian Pacific American Education office led me to my journey of discovery.

As a former aspiring geologist, I find it fitting to use a comet as an analogy to describe my journey. That is, geologists can determine where a comet will end up by figuring its past travel line. The search for purpose is similar to a comet’s journey in space. You will only know where you will go after you have figured out where you have come from. That’s what my college education has done for me, and I have every intention of supporting that journey for the Mienh community, for my TRiO students at Highline College and for all students.

Ay Saechao, co-founder of the nonprofit Southeast Asian Education Coalition, is associate dean for student development and retention as well as TRiO director at Highline College. He has dedicated his career to addressing the educational opportunity gap at both the local and national levels.