Five Questions With Sarah Ha
Managing Director, Asian American & Pacific Islander Initiative, Teach For America
Sarah Ha TFA AAPI Initiative Twitter: @TFA_AAPI
TFA on Twitter: @TeachForAmerica
TFA on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/teachforamerica
TFA on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/teachforamerica
Viewing her culture and low-income background as assets rather than deficits, Sarah Ha refused to get lost in the education system while growing up in Worcester, Mass. Instead, she leaned on an exceptional teacher and took control of her own education. Sarah’s hard work has paid off as she is quickly becoming a trailblazer in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community.
Today, Sarah is the first, and current, managing director of the Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative at Teach For America (TFA), a national teacher corps of college graduates and professionals who commit to teach for two years and raise student achievement in public schools. This role is personal to Sarah. Not only is she leveraging her background and experiences to recruit more AAPI teachers to serve as powerful role models and leaders in their communities and our nation, but she is committed to continuing to understand the educational experiences of our AAPI community.
We are inspired by Sarah’s commitment to celebrating the assets of—and expanding opportunities for—the AAPI community, and wanted to ask her five questions about how her college journey influenced her role as an education leader today. Here’s what she had to say.
1. Can you tell us where you went to college and what you studied?
I attended Boston College and majored in sociology, with a minor in faith, peace, and justice. This interdisciplinary minor led me to think critically about social justice issues—particularly those affecting underrepresented and underserved communities, with a focus on the AAPI community.
I began exploring the types of culturally relevant practices available to those in our community with mental health issues, and realized that serious barriers exist for all low-income communities of color when it comes to accessing mental health programs. This helped set the stage for my current work ensuring that all communities, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have access to a high quality education.
2. What’s the most fun thing that happened to you while you were in college?
I was a proud member of the AHANA community—which is an acronym that was coined by two student leaders citing the definition of the previously word “minority” as “less than” to stand for individuals of African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American descent—a group bringing students of various cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds together to understand shared experiences and become agents of change for our communities. It was powerful to reflect on my identity as a Korean American, as an Asian American, as a person of color, as a woman, and as an ally, and even more powerful to build a coalition with others. Instead of being lumped together into a general category of “minority,” we sought to recognize and amplify the realities of our unique experiences. Getting involved in issues that mattered to my campus and community made my college experience both fun and fulfilling. Building our collective community voice gave me a sense of purpose.
3. How would you describe yourself before and after college?
I was born in Worcester, Mass.—a low-income community—and moved to Korea when I was six. I was nine when I returned to Worcester, and I had lost most of my English. Many of my teachers dismissed me, assuming I wasn’t intelligent because I was an English Language Learner (ELL), and viewing my culture and low-income background as deficits instead of assets. They held me to lower expectations, and it would have been very easy for me to get lost in the system.
I’m grateful that I had an exceptional teacher who sought to understand where I was coming from, and found a Korean translator to help me learn. I was able to take control of my own education and eventually went to Boston College, where I became active in the AAPI and greater multicultural campus communities—and met others who felt similarly invisible because their culture, background, and histories were dismissed or omitted from textbooks and school curriculums growing up.
As a result of my early educational experiences, after college I was committed to ensuring that more educators be informed of the realities facing many of our AAPI students, and practice culturally responsive teaching to help them achieve at the highest levels. I’m so excited to help Teach For America launch our Asian American & Pacific Islander Initiative, which seeks to listen, learn, advocate, and stand with our AAPI community leaders to identify how we may work together to accelerate our collective impact by celebrating the assets of—and expanding opportunities for—the AAPI community. I’m humbled to share the commitment to broaden understanding around the educational experiences of our AAPI communities, and recruit more AAPI teachers to serve as powerful role models and leaders in their communities and our nation.
4. Was there a time when you stumbled in college and were able to recover? How did you overcome the difficulty?
Like many low-income and first-generation college students, I had difficulty making the transition to higher education. At the time I was insecure about acknowledging that, but I now realize that my cultural expectations and familial responsibilities were simply different from many of my peers. I came from very humble beginnings and juggled three jobs throughout college to help partially support my family and pursue my college degree.
I would feel inadequate around my more affluent peers, but because I was raised to practice self-discipline and emotional control, I didn’t share these feelings with anyone, which oftentimes resulted in experiences of loneliness. Many AAPI students often don’t feel confident in seeking help.
It wasn’t until I was exposed to ethnic studies curricula and engaged in networks (i.e., Boston College Office of AHANA Student Programs, Korean Students Association, Asian Caucus, NAACP, Pilipino Society of Boston College, Chinese Students Association, etc.) that affirmed my identity and connected me to narratives that were reflective of my individual experiences that I began to develop a more positive sense of self and sense of agency. I was empowered learning about the resilience of so many communities I didn’t have the pleasure of learning about during my formative years. My frustrations inspired me to become more involved in the community and in the lives of those who also felt alone when dealing with their troubles. Linking my own life struggle with theirs, I felt compelled to be a voice to address issues of social justice, inequity, and discrimination. Once I acknowledged the role my personality and upbringing played in how I approached my college work and relationships and saw them as assets I developed more confidence in reaching out for support and was able to grow. I would not be where I am today without the support of my family, friends, peers, mentors, and role models.
5. How would you advise AAPI students on finding meaningful ways to give back to their communities while in college and after they graduate?
First, it’s so important to reflect on your background and personal experiences, which will inform your sense of purpose in whatever work you choose to do. Find what you are passionate about, and become an expert at it. Don’t forget that you are already an expert in your own social reality and no one can tell you otherwise. For me, my early schooling experiences opened my eyes to the struggles faced by many AAPI students, and inspired me to become an educational advocate.
Second, seek out help along the way. There are many others out there who share similar experiences and passions. When the right people come together, a movement is created.
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About the “Five Questions With…” Blog Series
The “Five Questions With…” blog series—presented by the “We’re the Changing Face of America” campaign—features the stories of students, public officials, business professionals, entertainers, and other notable Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) leaders. These individuals are sharing their experiences in higher education to help inspire today’s generation of AAPI students to reach for success.
About the “We’re the Changing Face of America” Campaign
The “We’re the Changing Face of America” campaign is a national public awareness effort dedicated to increasing access and completion among Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) students, the fastest-growing student population in U.S. colleges and universities. Launched in March 2013 by the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund (APIASF) and the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE)—the leading AAPI student- and research-focused organizations, respectively—the campaign works through strategic partnerships to help ensure that access and success challenges experienced by the AAPI student population do not continue. The campaign supports the Partnership for Equity in Education through Research project, which works to improve educational outcomes for AAPI students.
What five questions would you ask AAPI leaders about their college experience? Let us know in the comments section below or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!
To read more “Five Questions With…” blog interviews or for more information, click here.