‘Education meant hope:’ Recalling an immigrant experience in NH

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In 1992, my family of five fled Vietnam and settled in Manchester; three years later, I was born. Similar to the experiences of other immigrants and refugees, moving to a new country came with many obstacles, including financial, cultural, and linguistic barriers. My parents quickly joined the job market, working days and nights to support us. This meant they did not have the opportunity to take English classes or adjust to a new country or culture. Away from meat packaging facilities and production floors, my parents designated time to embark on odysseys through uncharted land – searching for things to make our one-bedroom tree streets housing apartment feel like home. We trekked around Manchester in our family’s used rickety green Chevrolet cargo van, losing a car part every time we drove. I called the van the Cavemobile, which should have been sent back to prehistoric times. However, it did the job. We filled the back with Manchester’s finest construction material from old furniture and other everyday household items, handpicked from bundles found on sidewalks. 

Despite the adversities my family and I faced, one thing prevailed – my parents’ belief in education. Liberation from socio-economic hardships, exploitive labor practices, and linguistic barriers seemed attainable through education. Simply put, in my family, education meant hope. I took what I learned from my parents – hard work and perseverance, and applied it. I took as many classes and joined as many clubs in an attempt to properly equip myself with the skills I believed necessary. However, hard work alone could only get me so far; despite my enthusiasm and their desire to support me, we didn’t have economic resources or even the knowledge about the system to harness that desire. 

I learned the power of education with my acceptance into Breakthrough Manchester. This later led to my involvement with City Year and Upward Bound – free college readiness and/or youth leadership programs serving low-income and historically marginalized students. Programs like Breakthrough, City Year, and Upward Bound provided the resources that filled the gap between equal and equitable education. It was through these rigorous and enriching programs that I learned and did things for the first time; went on college tours, learned how to write a college essay, went to a movie theater, developed public speaking skills, and found belonging. These first experiences taught me that with the right resources and support, students from those neighborhoods in that part of town could have the opportunity to define and achieve their success. I applied these values and skills I learned, and was able to become the first in my family to earn a college degree, completed a Fulbright grant teaching English in Vietnam, and earned a Master’s degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education; most importantly, I have had the privilege to work in education to serve my community.

Chau Ngo

The term ‘equity in education’ is hard to define succinctly – it is as complex and nuanced as the lived experiences of the people that make up our community. Whereas, the term “equality,” commonly used, focuses on providing all students with the same educational opportunities throughout their education; this approach fails to consider that, even with those opportunities, different students will have needs that differ to succeed. Equity in education aims to create a level playing field for all students by providing every student with the specific support they need to reach and maintain high academic expectations and standards. Equity requires understanding the unique challenges and barriers students face to help students navigate barriers. 

New Hampshire (NH) is predominantly non-Hispanic white (74.9% to be exact) with pockets of diversity in the state. According to Ken Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy, New NH’s population grew by a modest 4.6% percent and the number of minority residents increased by 74.4% during the past decade. This means that the population is growing allowing for new voices and diverse ideas; this is especially true in Manchester, NH. What should be highlighted is that children are at the leading edge of the state’s growing diversity; the adult population in Manchester is 22% people of color, whereas almost 43% percent of the children in Manchester are students of color. As the largest and most diverse city in NH, the question of equity in education in Manchester is a pivotal one. 

How? Working toward equity in education starts with the belief that all children are entitled to an education rooted in justice, historical accuracy, and non-discriminatory and anti-racist practices and policies. We need to assess how equity shows up in education and how we can show up for the next generation of leaders. Achieving equitable practices is not easy; to fulfill the promise of a quality public education that serves all students, we must meet this challenge. Our duty as community leaders, advocates, and supporters of children is to ensure they are supported holistically in learning environments. 

The community programs mentioned above, and other organizations like Manchester Proud, Manchester Community Action Coalition, GearUp, and Center for New Americans have done much of the heavy lifting in Manchester and in some other communities, to make up for where the state has fallen short in terms of education offering academic and social services that are lacking in schools. Why is that? Well, one of NH’s shortcomings can be found in the education funding system. Although NH ranks high in the nation when it comes to student-to-teacher ratio, NH’s contribution to public education is the lowest in the nation. In the 2019-2020 school year, only 31.4% of the state’s funding came from the state level, whereas states like Vermont contribute as high as 89.9% to education. A 2020 report released by the commission showcases the current funding system creates inequity, where “‘property rich’ towns with wealthy local tax bases and high property values can generously fund their public schools, while the ‘property poor’ towns without a deep tax base struggle to provide even basic funding.” In light of this, we must ensure education in NH is funded fairly and equitably for all students, not just the privileged few. 

Equity can show up in different forms, and when practiced, can have significant impacts on students like me. At different levels (classroom, school, and district), equity can show up as authentic and trusting relationships (between students, teachers, and districts); equity can also begin by differentiating learning and assessment practices, empowering student and teacher voices, engaging in deep praxis and reflection, shifting to an asset-based approach, assessing discipline practices and eliminating zero-tolerance approach, and rethinking the grading system. It is our collective responsibility as advocates of all children to work towards equity by breaking down the barriers and raising the bar. The hope that education gave me should be available to all.

GSNC 2 ColorThese articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 

About this Author

Chau M. Ngo for NH Center for Justice and Equity

Chau M. Ngo is a proud Vietnamese-American, daughter of immigrants, and Manchester, NH resident and native, attending Beech Street School, McLaughlin Middle School, and Central High School. She formerly taught high school in MA and Vietnam and served as Program Director at Breakthrough Manchester. She recently graduated from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education with an Ed.M. in education policy and analysis and is currently working at an education think tank to lead positive change in education and work towards a more equitable education landscape. She is passionate and excited to talk about education, equity, leadership, DEIB, research, food, her family, and her dog, Beans.