Immigration: Cambodian Youth Leader Talks Literacy Challenges And Solutions

Rex Yin has been the youth development coordinator at the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia for the last three years. He said his favorite part of the job is seeing the growth of the students he works with.

Yin helps lead several youth programs, including the SumOur Roots program, a collaboration with VietLead and the Bhutanese American Association of Philadelphia that teaches high school and college students about food justice and community building. Yin also helps with grant writing at CAGP and will newly turn his focus toward college and career advising.

Yin recently spoke about CAGP’s youth programming, the struggles facing the city’s Cambodian community and his own background as a Cambodian refugee.

The following Q&A with Yin has been edited for length and clarity.


What is the Out-of-School Time program?

The OST program is one of our longest standing programs, coming into it’s 26th year of existence. … The OST Program started in recognition that the Cambodian community has statistically low literacy rates. So when we started, we recognized that a lot of our students were in school and not proficient in the English language. Knowing that they come from homes where parents weren’t speaking English, the parents can’t really help them with homework either, so the OST program was really meeting that need in the community.


Would you say language is still an issue today?

We still have parents now, even parents who’ve lived in America for almost 10, 15, 20 years and still haven’t mastered or learned the English language. There’s various factors why — either parents aren’t able to attend English language learner classes due to maybe complicated work schedules, some parents work in work settings in which English isn’t required for them to speak in or to learn, some parents don’t learn English because of mistrust of the environment that they’re in and so they really just stay within their own comfortable setting.


Cambodian-American Educational Challenges Nationally

According to the most recent fact sheet from the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center:

  • 38.5 percent of Cambodian adults older than 25 do not have a high school diploma or equivalent
  • 65.8 percent of Cambodian-Americans have not attended college
  • 39.2 percent of Cambodian-Americans speak English less than “very well,” while that is only true for 8.7 percent of the U.S. population
  • 18.2 percent of Cambodian-Americans live below the poverty level


Can you explain the Digital Storytelling program?

That’s a program that I designed in regards to knowing that the middle school years are sensitive years of social and emotional development and also social identity development. So a lot of immigrant and refugee children are struggling with that idea of, “Well, I ethnically identify as Cambodian, or Hispanic, or Black, but also I’m American, so what does that mean? So what does it mean to be Cambodian and American?” You almost see this dichotomy of students having to choose between the two.


Can you talk about your own background and how it informs your role with students?

The wave the majority of Cambodians are from happened in late ’80s, early ’90s, and this is the resettlement of Cambodians post-Vietnam War, but also post-Cambodian holocaust in which the Pol Pot regime was taking place and right afterwards when it ended after four years of terror. This is a very common narrative because this is where my family was part of…I came to America when I was about 1, 1-and-a-half years old. My parents went through a long journey. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, then moved from there to France and then from there they moved to Silver Springs, Maryland and ultimately resettled in Philadelphia. … So really understanding that experience, that journey that my parents have and that’s a very common narrative for a lot of Cambodian-Americans, has really advised my role.


How did you decide you wanted to work with the Cambodian community?

There was a point where I didn’t really see my Cambodian identity as important to me. … It didn’t even matter whether I was Cambodian. It was just the fact that I was one of 10 Asian students in the high school. … What mattered more to me then was that I was Asian American. …  It took going to college, where I took an education course on language, culture and immigration. Our first assignment was to do research on the assimilation of an ethnic community, so I decided to do Cambodians. … I found newfound information that blew my mind.


What stood out about the information you found?

What stood out to me was a lot of the startling statistics in regards to achievement and literacy and math and science and seeing the high percentage of high school dropouts or even college attainment being a lower percentage. And as I stepped back and kind of reflected on it, they were true. I remember growing up and college was not really a conversation I really talked about with my family. … My dad did go to college, but knowing that we were in a new country and the school system’s different, we were worried about how expensive it was. I knew I was doing well in school but I was unaware of the other Cambodian students who were struggling.



For students who may be struggling or who want to join a youth program, CAGP’s South Philadelphia Office can be reached at:  215.389.0748

Educational Youth Programing at CAGP

  • Out of School Time – OST consists of one hour of after school literacy education for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. There is also a summer camp available. This program serves about 36-45 students.
  • Digital Literacy –  The Digital Literacy program is a new after school program for students in fifth to eighth grade at the Logan Hope School. The first cycle of the program ran this past school year in which students created videos about an object that is important to them and the life story of one of their role models. This program serves about 12-15 students.
  • SumOur Roots – This program is held in collaboration with VietLead and the Bhutanese American Organization of Philadelphia. Students in grades 9-12, as well as some college organizers, learn about food justice, cultural connections to land and community building. This program serves about 22-35 students.


-Text and images by Jenny Roberts.

1 Comment

  1. This article was very interesting and informative. Programs like this should exist throughout other communities so children excel in school. Very well written.

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