July 1st, 2008 | Published in Profile
Name: Phoumy Sayavong
Employer: Oakland Unified School District
Job Title: Senior Researcher
Location: Oakland , CA
Job Description: I am the coordinator of research and evaluation projects in a school district with 110 schools and 40,000 students. Part of my job involves analyzing and interpreting district-wide academic achievement data that include quarterly assessments and annual standardize test scores. One of my biggest annual projects is called the Use Your Voice survey that goes out to over 100,000 students, teachers, administrators, staff, parents, community-based organizations, district directors and officers. The responses to the survey provide the school district with opinions that help guide policy makers as they work on improving the quality of service to our educational system.
How did you end up working there?
I had always dreamed about what it would be like to have a job traveling throughout the country. I learned quickly what it was like as I started my first day of the job by getting on a plane headed for Vermont. The glamour of traveling faded quickly when I was assigned to evaluate programs in Pulaski (Wisconsin), Lyndon (Vermont), and the toughest schools in Chicago. When the position for a senior researcher opened up in Oakland, California, I took it without much hesitation. I was not only coming home, but it also allowed me to work with a very diverse student population. It’s here that I get the opportunity to learn from and contribute to solving big academic challenges. I also get to apply my personal experience and much of what I’ve learned in graduate school to explain people’s thoughts and behavior.
What do you love most about your job?
This job provides the opportunity for me to answer many questions that I used to have about the educational system even since I came to this country at the age of seven. I used to ask questions such as, ” Where do textbooks come from?” and “Why am I taking so many tests?”, “Why am I in ESL?”, and “How did my teachers seem to know everything?” After all these years of pondering, it’s funny to think that I am now working as a researcher who’s primary role is to ask questions.
What was your the first job you ever had?
I was picking berries at the age of 11 in Washington. My parents would travel three hours to Vancouver, Washington and drop my sister and I off at our cousins’ house each summer. We had three months to earn as much as we could. It was probably the most difficult and most enjoyable job I’ve ever had.
What motivates you?
I was born in Laos and arrived in Seattle, Washington at the age of seven. As far as I can remember, my first day of school was full of awe and wonder. I had no idea what I was doing or what anyone was saying because I’ve never been schooled nor did I speak any English. A week later, I learned that neither my classmates nor teacher knew what to say to me. My teacher or the school administrators didn’t know how to teach me and my older sister because we made up two of the three Lao students at the school. The administrators had no other way of communicating with us so they brought in the only Lao expert they knew to help bridge the language barrier, a third grade girl who knew about as much Lao as we knew English. In that moment, I was clear that everyone felt helpless in the situation. Within a few weeks, my sister and I moved to a new school with a large Southeast Asian student population. It was an hour bus ride each way but being among other kids like me and learning in specialized programs with Lao speaking teaches made all the difference in the world.
Overcoming moments of helplessness has been my driving force as an adult. Feeling helpless not only slows down my progress but it also pains me to see others who end up in similar situations. For this reason, I’ve been motivated to find answers or resources to remedy many common social questions and needs that people experienced as a result of being exposed to a new setting. Whether they are recent refugees, family, friends, undergraduate, or graduate students, everyone needs specialized help or guidance at some point in their lives.
What else do you do with your time?
I keep myself busy with social issues in the Laotian American community. I’m currently the Chair of the Laotian American National Alliance (www.lana-usa.org) and Chair of the Center for Lao Studies (www.laostudies.org). My friends and I are working on a Southeast Asian library, Lao artifact preservation project with colleagues in Luang Prabang, Laos (www.laoheritagefoundation.org/puangChampa/v), and the International Lao New Year in San Francisco for 2009. I also do a lot of community work locally in the San Francisco bay area with several community-based organizations.
A version of this article is featured in Lao Roots Magazine issue#4 (2008).