Blog – Southeast Asian Refugee Children’s Education: What We Know and Where We Need to Go

By Bao Nhia Moua, M.Ed

Southeast Asian Refugee Children’s Education: What We Know and Where We Need to Go

Every student who wishes to go to college should be allowed that opportunity. Being a child of Southeast Asian refugee parents can come with its barriers in regards to college access and success. The Asian Pacific American (APA) population has been misrepresented by being labeled as a single, homogenous racial group (Hune & Chan, 1997; Teranishi, 2002). However, a deeper look at the ethnic subgroups reveals unique and different social and institutional experiences (Teranishi, 2002). The Southeast Asian (SEA) refugee population’s story is unique to their identity because they came to the U.S. as refugees and their forced immigration status largely affects their access to programs and services (Doubblestein, 2017). This blog posts includes a comprehensive list of things we know about SEA refugee children and their experiences in education and will conclude with recommendations for our educators.

What Do We Know About SEA Refugee Children and Their Experience in Education?

  1. The majority of Southeast Asian refugees did not migrate to the U.S. by choice, but rather, were forced to leave their homeland in order to escape political persecution and turmoil by the communist Vietnamese government. The trauma and challenges SEA refugees faced in their home country strongly affect their children today (Museus, 2013).
  2.  Parents of SEA children are often absent from the college application process due to a lack of English proficiency skills to engage with college personnel (Robinson & Roksa, 2016).
  3. According to the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (2011), the SEA population represents the lowest college completion rates among APAs. A report of SEAs who attended college but failed to complete their degrees are as follows: 42.9% Cambodian, 47.5% Hmong, 46.5% Lao, and 33.7% Vietnamese compared to their APA counterparts (e.g. 8.2% Asian Indian; 12.5% Chinese; 12.7% Pakistani) (National Commission, 2011). The SEA population are more likely to drop-out of college for non-academic reasons than because of academic struggles, including financial instability and experiences of discrimination (Palmer & Maramba, 2015).
  4. When SEA students enter the U.S. education system, they do not have the same level of cultural capital as their White middle-class peers to navigate the cultural values, norms, and knowledge to thrive and survive in the current society (Museus, 2013). This may impede SEA students’ access to resources and overall success. According to Wilson (1996), when students grow up in a neighborhood with high poverty rates and residential segregation, this leads to at-risk behaviors of welfare dependency, drug, addiction, gang violence, and school failure. This behavior can ultimately hinder the success and social mobility of students (Museus, 2013).
  5. Family and cultural factors are a critical issue to college access for the SEA population because they underscore the intergenerational-intercultural conflict among first-generation SEA refugee parents and second-generation SEA children (Ying & Han, 2007). Due to the communities in which they live and the social networks they develop in the U.S., SEA refugee parents have often been socialized by their culture of origin and thus, choose to retain those values and acculturate slowly into the U.S. culture. On the other hand, SEA children of refugees continue to become influenced by environmental factors and socialized to participate in American culture through the education system and their peers (Ying & Han, 2007). More specifically, SEA refugee parents have been found to be less willing to embrace U.S. culture due to their forced migration status. Their involuntary relocation encourages them to hold onto their ethnic roots, religion, and culture even more because they are not ready to embrace a new identity yet. Additionally, experiences of trauma have impacted SEA refugees from parenting their children properly resulting in an increased intergenerational-intercultural conflict (Ying & Han, 2007).
  6. SEA children experience a number of challenges that make it difficult to enter college, especially when it comes to paying for college. The SEA population has one of the largest poverty rates. Recent studies from CARE (2008) report that the poverty rates among the Hmong (37.8%), Cambodians (29.3%), Laotians (18.5%), and Vietnamese (16.6%) is much greater than what is found among Filipinos (6.3%), Japanese (9.7%), and Asian Indians (9.8%). The lack of money along with information and resources about how to pay for college can be used to predict outcomes among low-income families (Warnock, 2016). Knowledge about financial aid and college costs tends to be particularly limited among low-income parents, as well as parents with no direct experience of college (Grodsky & Jones, 2007).

Recommendations for Our Educators

  1. It is important to acknowledge the historical contexts of SEA families to better understand SEA student experiences in the education pipeline.
  2. Educators need to be properly trained and informed about underrepresented communities and the challenges and trends they face to increase their cultural competency.
  3. It is valuable to identify key institutional agents as mentors and role models to children of refugees to provide intentional assistance in the college application process.
  4. Children of refugees can benefit greatly from a high school that promotes a college-going culture.
  5. Resources and information that are provided in bilingual and multilingual languages are critical to include parents in the conversation of college.


Doubblestein, V. (2017). From descendants of refugees to first-generation college students: The untold story of southeast asian american college students lived experiences (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (10629156).

Hune, S., & Chan, K. S. (1997). Special focus: Asian Pacific American demographics and educational trends. In D. Carter & R. Wilson (Eds.), Fifteenth annual status report on minorities in higher education  (39–67). Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE). (2011). The relevance of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the college completion agenda. New York, NY: Author.

Teranishi, R. (2002a). Perspectives on Asian Americans as a whole and in parts: An intragroup perspective on educational attainment and achievement. College Board Review,  No. 195, 16–21.

Museus, S. (2013). Unpacking the complex and multifaceted nature of parental influences on southeast asian american college students educational trajectories. Journal of Higher Education, 84(5), 708-738.

Robinson, K. & Roksa, J. (2016). Counselors, information, and high school college-going culture: Inequalities in the college application process. Research in Higher Education, 57, 845-868.

Palmer, R. & Maramba, D. (2015). The impact of social capital on the access, adjustment, and success of southeast asian american college students. Journal of College Student Development, 56(1), 45-60.

Warnock, D. (2016). Inequalities at the outset: Racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic differences in parent’s perceptions of paying for college. Journal of College Student Development, 57(5), 503-521.

Wilson, W. J. (1996). When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. New York: Vintage Books.

Ying, Y. & Han, M. (2007).  A test of the intergenerational congruence in immigrant families – child scale with southeast asian americans. Social Work Research, 32(1), 35-43.

Grodsky, E., & Jones, M. T. (2007). Real and imagined barriers to college entry: Perceptions of cost. Social Science Research, 36, 745‑766.

Bao Nhia Moua was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is the daughter of Hmong refugee parents who are survivors of the Vietnam War. She is a first-generation college student. Growing up in a high poverty neighborhood where financial and academic resources were limited for low-income refugee families, Bao Nhia became interested in supporting children of refugees in their academic journey. She currently holds a Master of Education in Student Affairs from UCLA and seeks to continue supporting children of refugees through college access, retention, and persistence.