AAPI Role Models Matter - Higher Education

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AAPI Role Models Matter

by Heather Tow-Yick

Every adult can recall the childhood excitement they felt for their heroes. I would burst at the seams every time I saw Michael Chang take to the tennis court. As a young Chinese American, it was critical to my positive identity and development to see Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) role models who looked like me. The same is true for today’s AAPI students, for whom seeing educational leaders who share their background is integral to developing positive orientations toward school and self.

Heather Tow-Yick

Heather Tow-Yick

In the past months we’ve seen Dr. Tommy Chang and Hanseul Kang become superintendents of Boston and DC Public Schools, respectively. Watching the excitement which permeated across my network of family and friends, one might surmise that these educators, too, had won the French Open. My uncle immediately notified my cousins and me; a group of colleagues who share the AAPI connection circulated a celebratory email. I was personally thrilled to see two leaders who represent a similar ethnic and racial background as the approximately 2.6 million of our nation’s students who identify as AAPI taking key leadership positions ― in two of the country’s largest school systems, no less.

Research and experience show us that having educators who share their race can have a positive impact on kids. This is particularly critical for AAPI students, many of whom are engaged in a silent struggle behind a highly destructive model minority myth. This stereotype drives the perception of universal privilege and success among AAPI students — that we all come from wealth, are good at math and go to Ivy League colleges. The reality is that, among the AAPI community’s 48 ethnicities, many live well below the poverty line or graduate high school at alarmingly low rates. The model minority myth makes it easy to overlook these students; having AAPI teachers and leaders who understand their realities helps them be seen.

What’s unique about Tommy Chang and Hanseul Kang is their visibility ― and subsequent ability to have a systemic impact on students’ relationship with the AAPI culture. While race relations have come a long way in this country, microagressions toward AAPIs are still a daily occurrence. Despite being the fifth generation of my family living in Rhode Island, and the executive director of Teach For America—Rhode Island, I continue to be asked how I “learned to speak such good English.” My mother was also asked such questions throughout her lifetime, reflecting a long-held perception of “otherness” for AAPIs in this country. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, through the Foreign Miner’s Tax, through the refusal of unions allowing Chinese workers to organize and join — such otherness is deeply rooted in our history. It’s not something we want our children to experience.

Identity connections matter, whether you’re a child watching a national sports figure, or a working professional celebrating others to accomplish great things for kids. It’s important that we stand behind the leaders in public education who represent the AAPI community, and advocate for more — so that, one day, our AAPI students won’t feel the model minority myth and sense of “otherness” in their lives.

Heather Tow-Yick is the executive director of Teach For America—Rhode Island. She is the fifth generation of her Chinese American family living in Rhode Island.

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