Articles and Features

Deputy director of the White House AAPI initiative on the barriers students are currently facing

In honor of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, South Seattle Community College (SSCC) hosted a series of events, which included a forum with Christina Lagdameo, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), held on May 6.

The event was supported by an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI) grant, a two-year, $2.4 million federal grant awarded to SSCC to foster student retention and aid in the success of primarily AAPI students. SSCC is one of only six recipients of an AANAPISI grant in the country. The forum’s purpose was to discuss the challenges that AAPI students face and how those issues can be addressed in policy.

About Lagdameo

Prior to being appointed deputy director to the initiative on April 26, 2010, Lagdameo worked for seven years at the White House Office of Management and Budget. She examined more than $45 billion in federal income support programs, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, Refugee Resettlement, and issues relating to asset poverty.

Lagdameo, who has always been committed to the social, economic, and political empowerment of marginalized communities, including low-income individuals, women, and youth, also established the first Asian American studies program in the D.C. metropolitan area, while she was still a student at the University of Maryland. She has recently returned from India, where she worked for more than two years to help rescue and rehabilitate survivors of sex-trafficking.

South Seattle Community College students Dante Obcena (left) and Ikran Ismail discuss the challenges facing them in their education. (Photo by Jean Wong/NWAW)

What is the initiative?

The initiative was first established under President Clinton as a measure to improve the quality of life for AAPIs by facilitating increased access to and participation in federal programs where they remain underserved.

On Oct. 14, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Executive Order re-establishing the initiative, this time with the agenda that it be all encompassing. The initiative deals with civil rights, educational opportunities, sustainable neighborhoods, healthy communities, and economic growth.

“Why is AANAPISI important and how does it help eliminate disparities in education and economics for AAPI students?” Lagdameo asked the students and faculty members present at the forum.

She urged participants to read President Obama’s new report concerning his agenda and the AAPI community entitled “Winning the Future.” The report addresses the common misconception that AAPI students are all doing well academically and are mostly in Ivy League schools.

Referring to the report, she stated, “Nearly 50 percent of AAPIs are in community college, and our nation’s college completion rank has dropped from first to ninth place.” She said that there is now an unprecedented number of AAPIs in federal management roles, and she hopes to see more, encouraging the students present at the forum to apply for internships with the federal government.

Lagdameo assured the attendees that with this initiative, 23 federal agencies are committed to creating a measurable plan to improve the lives of AAPIs and breaking down barriers between the government and community.

She cited bullying as one of the top issues that the government has faced regarding minority students. “After 9/11,  there were a lot of hate crimes against Muslim students, but we are working with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to ensure students are protected.”

Lagdameo encouraged everyone present to share their stories and recommendations, emphasizing that the Obama administration is strong in public engagement and is open to the youth message.

“We were told to go out into the community and not only report back, but to make policy changes,” continued Lagdameo.

Challenges facing students

One of the attendees was Shirlee Johnson, a Filipino single mom with two children, ages 9 and 13. She is studying to be an ESL teacher at SSCC. She is actively involved in her children’s lives. “I believe that one of the biggest barriers for AAPI students is the challenge of bridging the gap between home and school. My own mother was a single mom and was too busy working to support the family to attend PTA meetings or support me with school.”

Johnson said emphatically, “If you want your kid to succeed, how do you play a role in that?” She tries hard to pursue her goals and dreams in order to “break the cycle” for her children.

Dante Obcena, an SSCC student government leader who is also Filipino, said the biggest obstacle he faces is balancing his family’s needs with his own.

“I have to take care of my family and divide my time between my parents, my siblings, and myself.”

He is studying nursing and hopes to eventually obtain a Master’s in Public Health. Like many SSCC students, he not only works several jobs but is also on food stamps.

”I wish I could take all of my scholarships and turn them into cash because they are only for tuition and are not sustainable,” he said, with a measure of frustration. “It’s hard to juggle my studies with work, and you cannot be on FAFSA and get food stamps. It doesn’t make any sense.”

His family is putting pressure on him to become a doctor, but he struggles with balancing his responsibility to them with his desire to follow his own calling.

Lagdameo encouraged him, saying to all, “Live out your passions because you can never appease your parents.” She shared the story of her own brother. “He committed suicide at just 30 years old. I wish he had known he was supported.”

“The pressure on Asian men is so great, and mental illness is not talked about in AAPI culture,” she said, urging troubled students not to lose hope. “Talk to someone about it. Don’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

Community responses

Paul Kurose, a teacher at North Seattle Community College, agreed with Obcena and other attendees that “the issue is financial.” He believes that it is not enough to just give money to schools, but that the government has to make sure the money is being spent efficiently.

“Educational institutions should spend more allocated money on directly supporting the students instead of professional development programs for teachers and school reform.”

Kendee Yamaguchi, executive director of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA), said that a “cookie cutter approach would not be mindful of the special needs of a region” such as Washington state, where there is a higher proportion of AAPIs than many other states. Funding for education is for the most part on a local level, and is related to property taxes within the region. She expressed hope that the involvement of community in education such as jail outreach can be replicated on a federal level.

Ikran Ismail, a Muslim student at SSCC, said that though her school is very supportive of her religion, not all colleges are that way. “There is a gap between culture and education. The system was meant to fail us.” She implored Lagdameo, “I hope today you will see the barriers and implement change and ask the president to build America’s future today.” ♦

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Jean Wong can be reached at


About Jean C Wong

I am a world traveler, writer, photographer, and teacher. I've lived all over the world and speak 5 languages.


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