The distinguished career of Dr. Vichet Chhuon, a thought leader in U.S. education policy, is a direct result of his own multicultural background and his family’s experiences as Cambodian refugees. As an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Chhuon’s work focuses on multicultural education and the experiences of underserved youth in urban school districts. He’s earned a number of accolades, including the Carl A. Grant Research Award from the National Association for Multicultural Education and the Early Career Award from the Association for Asian American Studies in 2015. “For me, part of what I do in higher education is push forward ideas and open up access and opportunities for individuals who might be newcomers; those whose parents are immigrants or students themselves who are immigrants and might not have the kind of social, political, and cultural capital,” Chhuon says.
In 1981, Chhuon and his family fled from Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, settling in Los Angeles as part of a large wave of Southeast Asian refugees. There, he grew up and attended public schools before moving on to earn a Master’s in educational psychology from Cal State Northridge, as well as a Master’s in child development and a PhD in education from UC Santa Barbara.
Yet his formative years as a student in the Los Angeles Unified Public School District, and later as a teacher, shaped his career. “I just had questions about schools and school equity and the very different expanses of educational systems for students of color, for immigrants, or even [for] American students,” he explains. “I questioned why some kids get engaged and some not, why some kids are strivers and others not, why school doesn’t suit them. Later on, as a college student, I asked, ‘Why are some schools built like prisons?’”
It’s important for students of color and young immigrants to see people who mirror them in front of the classroom.
In impoverished neighborhoods, a dearth of school funding can lead to hiring cheaper and more inexperienced teachers, which can lead to a high turnover rate. That affects a disproportionate number of students of color and kids from immigrant families. “One of the things that I’m working on right now is making a push for more teachers of color,” Chhuon says. “It’s important for students of color and young immigrants to see people who mirror them in front of the classroom, in positions of authority, as having knowledge. It’s actually good for white students all over the state as well. Otherwise, frankly, they’re going to rely on stereotypes and what they see from the media.”
Chhuon’s scholarly articles have been published in a variety of journals, and he has served as Chairman of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), a national research society that advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes research to improve education. To him, immigration reform is important because it’s personal. “I’m a Cambodian-American, and I’m here because of very assertive immigration policies for Cambodians,” Chhuon says. “Liberal immigration policy was proactive in getting resettlement and refugees like my family here.”