Mike Hoa Nguyen: Study Reveals Value of Building Capacity at AANAPISIs

HEOC alumnus and assistant professor at the University of Denver honored with an Outstanding Dissertation Award from AERA’s Research on the Education of Asian and Pacific Americans SIG.

From the halls of Congress as a senior staff member to the corridors of UCLA’s Moore Hall as a graduate student in the division of Higher Education and Organization Change (HEOC), Mike Hoa Nguyen (’19, PhD, HEOC) has seen both sides of policy in education. His expertise has led to recognition by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) with the Outstanding Dissertation Award from the organization’s Special Interest Group on Research on the Education of Asian and Pacific Americans. 

Nguyen’s dissertation, “Building Capacity at Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISI): Cultivating Leaders and Civic Engagement through Federal Policy,” was based on his studies of AANAPISIs and their capacity to ably serve the unique needs of a student population that is often mischaracterized as a “model minority.”

“This problem [of a model minority myth] obviously predates AANAPISIs,” says Nguyen. “In the creation of the AANAPISI [designation] as the legislation was moving through Congress, that was actually a big concern among some Congressmembers, who had these problematic misconceptions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. They saw them as model minorities, and wondered, ‘Why do we need these programs?’

“AANAPISIs – in the words of Robert Teranishi (UCLA Professor of Education) – is that they demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). They are the federal government’s stamp or seal, if you will, that says, ‘We care about AAPIs and this is a community that needs attention and resources like all communities of color.’”

Nguyen says that the federal acknowledgement of AANAPISIs does not always trickle down to the institutional level, and that attempts to create AANAPISI programs on many campuses face resistance from administrators who still do not see the need, due to relatively small numbers of AAPI students.

“With respect to their demographics, you have some [institutions] that have huge percentages of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders – 50 or 60 percent of the students on their campus are AAPIs,” notes Nguyen. “If you go to the Pacific,  the numbers are even higher, nearly 100 percent. And then you have schools, like some on the East Coast, that have a smaller threshold of having AAPI students – they have maybe 13 percent.

“And what you see at some of these schools is that no matter the size or number of the [AAPI] population, that number is used against those students. For a school that has a large percentage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the rationale is that, ‘There’s so many of them, and they’re doing so well. We don’t need to give them any extra resources.’ You go to a school that has 15 percent AAPI population, you might hear from some administrators that, ‘Well, they are such a small part of the student population – we shouldn’t pay them any attention.’”

Nguyen says that the AANAPISI designation, which was created in 2007, is the newest minority-serving institution. Since then, 35 institutions of higher learning have been awarded the designation, with more on the way. He says that with the AANAPISI designation, colleges and universities are better equipped to serve their communities at large.

“Colleges and universities are an integral part of the [AAPI] community,” he says. “They are a natural bridge for the community and support it in so many different ways. AANAPISI institutions and those who work at those schools are organizing national and local efforts supporting students [through] the racism that they’re experiencing [and] also organizing efforts that inform policy. You have AANAPISIs that are the main organizations collecting data on racial hate crimes against Asian Americans, such as San Francisco State University, providing information to policy makers and law enforcement. You also see that many AANAPISIs are providing resources and creating spaces to educate and address anti-Blackness.”

Nguyen says that AANAPISIs are similarly resilient in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are also some of the most vulnerable, as they some of the institutions most significantly affected.

“AANAPISIs and schools that are designated as AANAPISIs educate an overwhelming majority of Asian American and Pacific Islander students in the country.,” he says. “Now, being impacted by the COVID, AANAPISIs are able to quickly adjust to serve students. However, they are typically community colleges – 50 percent – and the other 50 percent are four-year, regional comprehensive universities, like Cal States. These are already institutions that are seriously underresourced and underfunded, compared to large research universities with major endowments.”

Nguyen says that he has relied on his experiences in Washington D.C. to send updated data and statistics to members of Congress, specifically to the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, to help them update their legislation on AANAPISIs.

“I’m hoping to connect my two worlds in order to make sure AANAPISIs have the resources and do the best they can to support Asian American and Pacific Islander students, faculty, and administrators,” says Nguyen. “That’s part of the reason why I’m so interested in doing this work, is to be able to empirically demonstrate the more accurate reality of AAPI experiences on college campuses.”

Nguyen, who just completed his first academic year as an assistant professor at the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver, says that having to teach in a remote learning environment was not as difficult as would be expected.

“Having worked in Congress for seven years, in an environment where we were in the minority more than the majority, I’m used to uphill battles,” he says. “One characteristic of doing that kind of work is you have to be forever optimistic. I certainly am.

“I’ve been lucky. It’s my first year so I don’t have anything to compare it to. It has certainly been a challenge for the students … I would say more so than for the faculty. I know that the communities that I work with, and the students that I have, they are all outstanding and resilient. We’ll continue to support each other to get through this, as we have always done.”

Photo by Tien Nguyen