By now, the success stories of Southeast Asian refugee students are almost commonplace: the student who survived gunfire or a leaky boat in an escape; who spent months in primitive, overcrowded camps; who arrived in the United States with no money and no English skills, all to end up several years later at high school graduation as valedictorian.
Yet recently, almost as a counter to the too-good-to-be-true image of academic prowess, there have been stories about Southeast Asian youth gangs, about social alienation as a consequence of being caught between the culture of their homeland and that of their new country.
Lost between the two extremes is the fact that the majority of the more than half-million Indochinese youngsters in America--with by far the largest number in Southern California--are neither academic superstars nor juvenile delinquents but simply doing remarkably well.
Often lost as well is the need for school officials and the public to understand that there are important cultural and religious differences between the ethnic groups lumped together as Southeast Asians, that without an approach recognizing Vietnamese as distinct from Khmer--Cambodian--and Khmer as distinct from Laotian, the students will not reach their full potential.
Those are the major conclusions in a comprehensive study just completed on the educational success of Southeast Asian refugee youths by two sociology professors from San Diego State University.
The study was paid for by the federal Office of Refugee Settlement in an effort to find out whether the second generation of Southeast Asians, who are almost all children of poverty, is likely to become economically self-sufficient through success in school and not require continued public welfare. While not yet officially public, the results have been presented, in part or whole, to many educators throughout San Diego County and Southern California in small seminars as a way to begin improving existing programs.
While the study was of Indochinese students in San Diego County, the authors said the findings can be generalized about Indochinese everywhere, including Orange County.
Orange County has about 90,000 Vietnamese residents, and several previous studies have determined that the children from the Vietnamese community are generally excellent students. Garden Grove Unified High School District, which has a high concentration of Vietnamese students, has noted that unusually high percentages of them are valedictorians and honor students.
The most recent study made of Vietnamese students in Orange County was by Cal State Fullerton. Made public in December, the study noted the heavy pressures on Vietnamese college students, including strong family pressures for academic success.
In the San Diego County study, the central question was whether Vietnamese students were adapting well enough to be able to get good jobs and be financially independent in future years.
"We looked at social adjustments and educational attainment to measure the potential self-sufficiency, since most parents (of the students) are on welfare assistance," Ruben G. Rumbaut, associate professor of sociology, said in an interview.
"The problem is not an either/or," said Kenji Ima, Rumbaut's colleague on the study. "In general, most students are adapting well, yet there are problems of transition (somewhat) different for each group that need to be addressed earlier, although they are not chronic."
"For the most part . . . we would ask the question 'when' and not 'if' they will leave the welfare system," the two professors conclude in their report. Both Rumbaut and Ima strongly criticized a recent study by the research group California Tomorrow that said the vast majority of immigrant students, Southeast Asian, Latino and others, are at risk. The professors said the majority of all groups are doing "surprisingly well" given the initial obstacles they face.
For their research, Rumbaut and Ima followed almost 600 youths whose families had earlier been examined, between 1975 and 1983, as part of a comprehensive UC San Diego study on Indochinese refugees and therefore whose educational records could be obtained through the San Diego Unified School District.
Among the findings:
The Southeast Asian students as a group systematically outperform native-born American students on grade-point averages, despite initial or even persistent English language handicaps.
Yet differences exist within the various ethnic groups. Vietnamese score the highest grade-point averages, followed by ethnic Chinese,Vietnamese, Hmong, Khmer and Laotian students. The differences result partly from length of time spent in the United States; the number of two-parent families, and the social class of the family in their home country.