Increasing the visibility of Southeast Asian students: A discussion with Linda Pheng

Pheng finds that, while diversity as a concept is often celebrated in schools, course content need to avoid lumping Asian backgrounds together as one amorphous societal entity.

Among the most common refrains among Asian students in educational environments is that they feel unseen, unheard and disregarded. Across the country, and here in Philadelphia, Asian students say they are otherized and left out of the conversation. Linda Pheng, an assistant professor who teaches in the Education, Culture, and Society master’s and doctoral programs, is committed to studying and abating this phenomenon.

Linda Pheng.
Linda M. Pheng, assistant professor of policy, organizations, leadership, and systems division at Penn GSE. (Image: Courtesy of Penn GSE)

Pheng herself is the daughter of Cambodian immigrants, which she says colors her work and her understanding of academic erasure. Her research suggests that Southeast Asian students are often faced with a gantlet of specific difficulties. Asian students are not just dismissed because of their relative academic achievement, but they also face larger cultural invisibility. When the experiences of Southeast Asians are discussed in class, she says, there is no real exploration of the depth of their cultural contributions—instead, they are mentioned only as a touchstone for understanding historical events. For example, says Pheng, students often learn about conflicts that may involve Southeast Asians, but not about their cultures or experiences as people.

Pheng also finds that, while diversity as a concept is often celebrated in schools, Asian students, in spite of the vast cultural and ethnic difference between them, are often lumped together as one amorphous societal entity. “In this way, you only have to think of Asian students as one monolithic group,” says Pheng. “And you can treat them all the same way.”

Much of Pheng’s work centers on bringing critical qualitative research to a field of study where such work is scant, often for the same reasons that students of Southeast Asian descent are left out of lower-grade educational conversations. This, she says, is part of what brought her to Penn and, more specifically, to Penn GSE’s Education, Culture, and Society program.

“What attracted me to this program was the broad understanding of foundations of education and also the prioritizing of the interdisciplinary nature,” she says.

Read more at Penn GSE.