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Breaking the silence: Cambodian students speak out about school, success, and shifting identities

Roberta Wallitt, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation describes a qualitative research study about the educational experiences of Cambodian American students conducted in a community in the northeastern United States from January to November of 2003. The study investigated the experiences of fourteen Cambodian American young people, ages 16–23, in a small college community using both individual and group interviews as the primary source of data collection. The study examined how the participants' cultural identities and family expectations influenced their interaction with the school system and how teachers' practices and institutional policies affected the young people's striving for academic achievement. This study contributes to understanding why schools are not providing successful educational experiences for Cambodian American students as suggested by their disproportionate rates of dropping out and classification as learning disabled, and by views held by their teachers and sometimes themselves that they are low achieving students. The participants reflected the diversity among Cambodian American students: some were still in school; some had graduated; some had dropped out. They included males and females, those who had been born in Cambodia or in refugee camps and those who were born in the United States. They all presented their perspectives on both the supportive aspects of school and those aspects that had hindered their success. The study described in this dissertation explored the participants' experiences through the theoretical perspectives of multicultural education, culturally relevant pedagogy and critical race theory. An important aspect of this study was the centering of the young people's voices as the primary source of knowledge. This study generated a number of significant findings that emerged from the data. One finding illustrated the extensive influence their families and cultural teachings exerted on the students' lives, most relevantly in the school context. Another finding portrayed the dynamic nature of the students' identities in their lives as adolescents and bicultural border crossers. Other findings depicted the school experiences that supported the students in their educational journey as well as the obstacles that hindered their progress.

Subject Area

Bilingual education|Multicultural education

Recommended Citation

Wallitt, Roberta, "Breaking the silence: Cambodian students speak out about school, success, and shifting identities" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3179931.