Inspirational/Compton Native/Educator/Advocate/Cambodian American
Growing up as a Cambodian-American kid on the east side of Compton, CA, understanding the role of identity has always been a major part of my life. From kindergarten through high school, the vast majority of my peers identified as African American and/or Latino. I didn’t identify with either of these demographics so I worked to find commonalities and build bridges – usually through music (this included learning all of the words to both ‘Suavemente’ by Elvis Crespo and “Hey Ma” by Cam’Ron). Oftentimes, I found myself living in two very different worlds – my home life was crafted by traditional Cambodian traditions and values. My parents came to America a few short months before I was born and spoke no English, so Cambodian values and ideas were very prevalent in our household. This was drastically different than the life I lived outside of my house – none of my peers were Cambodian and I struggled with ‘fitting in’ and being accepted by them despite my differences. In hindsight, I realize that this was a struggle that many kids (especially children of refugees) face, but, at the time, it felt like I was the only one who had to deal with this feeling of loneliness and ‘being different’.
After I graduated from high school, I had the privilege of attending my dream school, UCLA. I had convinced myself that college life would be different. I was going to be attending one of the biggest and most diverse universities in the world – finally having the opportunity to meet and connect with people who were “like me”. I quickly came to the stark realization, however, that this was not the case.
The majority of my peers grew up in affluent communities and didn’t understand the struggles of growing up in the inner city. As a first generation college student, I had a hard time navigating the logistics of college life and struggled with the rigor of university classes. After my first year, I was placed on academic probation, subject to dismissal. Essentially, I would be kicked out of UCLA unless I dramatically raised my grades. In my university-mandated meeting with my college counselor I was told, “University education isn’t for everyone. Sometimes City College is a better option until you’re more ready”.
This was a slap in the face. I was basically being told that I was not smart enough to compete with my peers at this university (many of whom attended private or wealthy high schools before attending UCLA). This lit a fire under me. The way I saw it, I had two options.
One, I could accept my fate and prove them right – there weren’t many kids at UCLA who shared my background (both socially and economically) so maybe this wasn’t meant for people ‘like me’.
Or two, I could work my ass off and figure it out. Everything I had experienced thus far in my life came to a head at this point.
From my parents escaping refugee camps in Cambodia just so their kids can have the chance at a better life. To all my friends in Compton who weren’t as fortunate as I was to be attending a 4-year university because of reasons beyond their control. I knew it was bigger than me at this point. I had a responsibility to do whatever it took to define and achieve success or I would regret it my entire life.
Three years later, I graduated UCLA near the top of my class.
This was when I started to realize how my personal experiences had crafted my passions and purpose. Each unique piece of my identity and the experiences I had because of them had crafted me into the person I was and all the values I held sacred. For a long time, I viewed being different (both ethnically and socially) as an obstacle to building connections with others. Instead, this was what triggered my desire to learn more about and inspire others.
This was also a major reason why I decided to join Teach For America and become a high school mathematics teacher in Detroit, MI. In my time as a classroom teacher, I served as the math department lead and helped start the boys’ basketball team. Since leaving the classroom, I’ve continued to support schools and districts in different capacities, including school partnerships and teacher recruitment/selection, in Detroit, Los Angeles, and nation-wide.
In all of these roles, one thing has remained constant – giving all students, especially our students of color from low-income backgrounds, an equal opportunity to find themselves and to be successful. No matter how success is defined, none of our students deserve to feel incapable or inept for reasons beyond their control.
I’ve had the privilege of experiencing and learning what this means in my personal journey and I believe it’s my responsibility to pass it forward to our next generation of leaders.
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