March 28, 2023

From left: Noro Andriamanalina, Ph.D., Director of Academic and Professional Development for the UM Graduate School and Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, with U of M Postdoctoral Research Symposium presenters, Vichet Chhuon, Ph.D., Wendy Thompson, Ph.D., and Jarrett Gupton, Ph.D. (AAP staff photo by Tom LaVenture)


AAP staff writer

MINNEAPOLIS (March 24, 2010) – Three of University of Minnesota Postdoctoral Fellows presented their work to faculty and community last week at a Coffman Union luncheon, offering highlights of research on issues of relevance to the community.

Vichet Chhuon was raised in the Twin Cities and earned a doctoral degree in Cultural Perspectives and Comparative Education from the University of California, Santa Barbara, discussed his research on the influence of school structures on the ethnic and pan-ethnic identity of Cambodian high school youth in Minnesota.

Jarrett Gupton, who earned his doctoral degree in urban education policy from the University of Southern California, discussed research on the educational experiences of homeless youth and access to higher education.

Wendy Thompson, who earned her doctoral degree in American studies from the University of Maryland, College Park, discussed her research on Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans’ notions of race.

Louis Mendoza, Associate Vice President for Equity and Diversity said he was impressed with the three that were selected from 130 applications, and said the work is important for social and economic justice, and paves the way for continued conceptual and institutional foundation of cultural and academic excellence.

“The kind of work you are doing is absolutely crucial in this time of economic uncertainty, global migration and growing cultural diversity of communities across this country,” said Mendoza.

Dr. Vichet Chhuon said the fellowship allowed him to set up a broader multidisciplinary research agenda that encompassed ethnic identity and motivation and look at the lingering questions of youth context as it relates to many variables.

Chhuon said he wanted to study the immigrant adjustment of Cambodians in Minnesota as a Midwestern location with great diversity and its own sociocultural experience. He said the U of M Asian American Studies program has helped him to reconsider how API studies might be carried out in the Midwest, and that the Department of Education introduced new ways to look at contemporary discourse with Hmong and Somoli community studies as examples.

Chhuon said the conflicting images of Cambodian youth in regard to the model minority stereotype is complicated with other socioeconomic factors but that identity during adolescence is important. He said that more Cambodian immigrants are young and it is a fast growing population that is underserved and under-researched in education.

He wanted to looked at ethnic identities in area high schools and how this impacts school experience and how they understand identity within the pan Asian ethnicity. H described this as a social constructionist view of ethnic identity that can change and differ by situation. People can redraw identities depending on the social context, he added.

If Cambodian youth are troubled with their identities then this can significantly shape their student experience in the school, said Chhuon. This is apparent with youth exercising an “ethnic option” to identity with a pan ethnicity or a second ethnicity other than Cambodian in order to distance themselves from their Khmer ethnicity.

“It seemed for some Cambodian kids, the realization of their ethnic marginality pushed them to affirm the stereotype as a coping mechanism to deal with the conflicting images and identities available to the group,” said Chhuon.

He said students sometimes refer to their ethnicity as an association to urban poverty and then talk about other ethnic groups with generally more positive societal associations. He called this “ethnicity identity politics,” and said it is not necessarily an externally imposed identity.

Chhuon interviewed several youth and mentioned one who despite his high class standing, would still identity with a negative self image in part from his perception of expectations based on ethnic identity. It was also apparent with other youth who would described their pride in their identity in ways that hinted there were assumptions about low expectations on them for school achievement, and were motivated to prove them wrong.

The danger for those without that motivation is a negative identity with a self fulfilling prophecy for low expectations. He said this is critical to the social context where these identities are involved or rejected.

“I do recognize that schools are not the only places where ethnic identities are shaped, but they do play a major role for student with understanding of these identities particularly during adolescence,” said Chhuon. “These differing expectations attached to identities meant that Cambodian students had to learn how to negotiate these tensions and come up with sensible interpretations of what it meant to be Cambodian or Asian American and sometimes male and female.”

Dr. Chhuon will hold an appointment in the department of curriculum and instruction with an affiliation in the Asian American Studies Program.

Jarrett Gupton, who will hold an appointment in the department of organizational leadership, policy and development with an affiliation in the School of Social Work, talked about his work tutoring homeless youth in the shelters and institutions in downtown Los Angeles.

Dr. Gupton said that researchers and policymakers know that students from lower income backgrounds face barriers to postsecondary education. He said they need to know more about the homeless youth population before they should make policy decisions that will impact them.

He said the fastest growing homeless population is single mothers and the number of homeless children is growing. These groups typically move from shelter to shelter and from city to city in a survival mode, which mean corresponding rates of school mobility which disrupts the learning process.

This increases the likelihood of grade retention and decreased aptitude testing, but he said homeless youth maintain high aspirations for college and a better life.

Gupton said homeless youth tend to have high attendance rates and not only for school lunch programs and the relative safety from the streets, but also for the sense of normalcy they have as a student while in the school. He advocates for agencies and nonprofits to work with homeless youth in the schools as preferable to an agency office.

“School has a great transformative power,” said Gupton.

Wendy Thompson will hold an appointment in the department of history with an affiliation in the Asian American Studies Program.

Dr. Thompson, who is half Chinese and half African American, discussed the experience of “negotiating money, goods and foreignness and the experiences of African traders in contemporary Hong Kong and China.

Thompson’s research is rooted in her dissertation, “Beyond the Railroad People” which examines how Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans may have negotiated notions of race in order to resist or conform to pre-existing American racial hierarchy in acting to adapt to a perceived American national identity dependent on notion of a racialized act of allegiance.

She decided to take a look at the growing interaction between China and African countries, particularly in Lagos and Nigeria. She is beginning to study to see if a trader living a life between China and Lagos can earn a sustainable living. It does not appear to be a highly prosperous existence at first glance and she wants to know what conditions are driving them into the trading life.

She has witnessed large communities of ethnic Ibo Nigerians in Guangzhou, China. She wanted to see what drove these people to come to China and to define the Nigerian community of China if one exists.

Thompson spoke about formal and informal support mechanisms, the problems with communicating and of how a curious interaction between native Chinese and the immigrants that she said is a somewhat unique phenomenon.

She is looking at whether interactions with African Americans shape Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans perceptions about race. She is exploring how the race narrative would be told differently if we broadened the narrative of the landscape.

Thompson said that “interactions, perceptions and race” are the basis to explore broader context in which Afro-Asian encounters past and future. She said the research is in its preliminary stages and is starting with contemporary trade between China and Africa ­– which has a long history of exploration and trade dating back to 400 BC. Since the 1890s China has entered Africa as laborers with some remaining in local communities. Communist China has played a more active political and social role in China and allowed African students to Chinese universities.

Thompson said she became interested in the rise of African traders in China. Entire African communities and businesses have sprung up in Hong Kong and the Mainland. Friction has developed with immigrants overstaying work and education visas.

Erika Lee Ph.D., the director of the Asian American Studies Program and Assistant Professor of History, said Thompson’s work is valuable for its work to change the notions of race and changing mobility of people worldwide that is impacting immigration laws in many countries.

Dr. Lee said the research is new and would help to better understand the framework of American migration studies history to think about how race is a global construct outside of the United States.

“There is so little secondary research on this topic that you are going to be breaking new ground at every step. You will not have the benefit of Census data to draw on the basic questions so that ethnographic work that is drawing form cultural portraiture will be important. You will have to remake yourself away from the historian into a different type of researcher but that should be exciting.”

The postdoctoral fellowship ( is a university-wide initiative to attract promising scholars with potential to pursue future faculty positions at the University of Minnesota and at other top research universities. It seeks to advance the intellectual agenda and enhance the cultural diversity of the university community.

“We are honored that these top scholars will be part of the University of Minnesota for the coming year,” said vice president for research Timothy Mulcahy, whose office oversees postdoctoral programs. “We look forward to the energy and ideas they will bring to our classrooms and the community connections they will make.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *