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The Transracial Adoptee Experience in US Education

Transracial Adoptee and Multiracial
December 4, 2017 Hing Potter CUNY John Jay College Criminal Justice

I grew up in a small town in the state of Washington, where the old Salish Sea of tribal nations separated us from the wonders of the big city. It didn’t take much to get from Whidbey Island life to the fast lanes of Seattle. All we had to do was take a fifteen-minute ferry boat ride, drive south on interstate five, and we’d find ourselves in the Emerald City.

However, Washington wasn’t my first home. For the first four years of my life, I had been raised at the Nutrition Centre, an orphanage in Phnom Phen, Cambodia (Kingdom of Cambodia). When I was adopted and brought to the United States, I had no idea the impact this would have on my life – nor should I have known. Yet, I was brought into the household of two amazing and loving parents, my mother a medical social worker, and my father, a teacher. I was also the newest sibling to a seven-year-old sister and a two-year-old brother, who had also been adopted from India as an infant.

Living and growing up in a family with white parents provided me an experience that I’ve come to love and ache from. Specifically, in relation to my education, I was afforded all the privileges and opportunities to excel and be counted. Having a teacher for a father also added an extra layers of luxury many families would never experience – motivation, support, and additional access. Both my parents are college graduates. My mother earned her Bachelor in Social Work from Seattle University, while my father went to Purdue University for his undergrad, and obtain his Master of Science in Physics from the University of Washington. In addition, I had a grandparent, four aunts, and one uncle who are also life time educators. My older sister had also gone off to college, and was starting graduate school at Dominican University in Chicago, by the time I started college. All of this only provided a heightened sense of social and educational capitol, to help me navigate the college experience. Essentially, I had an educational launch pad for the 1%.

Compare this experience to the rest of the student body in my school district, I would venture to say that I was more privileged than about 40% of total enrollment. Whidbey Island could be a great place to live, however like many other communities, it’s economic shadows that existed really did hinder opportunities for social advancement. People still where able to integrate into the communities, but because of the intimacy between roughly 10,000 community members, everyone’s personal business, was everyone’s personal business, which could be just as much a curse, as it could be a gift.

From these factors, my education stretched beyond the classroom. Particularly at home, my siblings and I were continuously encouraged and supported by my parents. On a regular basis, my mother was always reading and correcting our essays, while my father coached us through math and science. This reflects the findings that “the more families support their children’s learning and educational progress, the more their children tend to do well in school and continue their education” (Henderson & Mapp, 2002).

Within the white support system, I grew up in, one thing still eluded me was home. Some may think home is where the heart is. Home is where your family is. Home is where you make it. I can appreciate these intangible definitions, because I firmly believe that the notion of home is much more than a building with roof and an address. Yet, when I think of home as a transracial adoptee, I still feel incomplete. As pointed out by Aeriel Ashlee (2017), “as a transnational, transracial adoptee, home is an elusive concept.”

Much of the discussion today in higher education centers around providing and encouraging students to explore their identities – experiences, beliefs, choices, values, influences, and emotions that have helped them become who they are. While I speak with students about the importance of reflection and challenging these intersections, I often find myself in personal reflection as well. I often hear students of color explain of the lack of diversity in their own education, which to them is deeply connected to their own personal motivations and achievements. Specifically, when it comes to race representation. A 2015 study that focused on race/ethnicity representation in the classroom suggested when students of color are assigned an instructor of the same race/ethnicity, it “has positive and potentially policy relevant reading impacts…and significant math achievement impacts” (Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015).

I never had this benefit of racial/ethnic representation. In fact, none of my teachers in grade school to high school were of Asian background. I can’t say I blame the school district for that, since the community was predominantly white. But I can’t shake off the fact that I missed out on the experience and what I would have meant to me to have that as part of my narrative. What would have been different? Would I learn a little bit more about home? How would my thoughts on home differ? Would my class, Eastern Civilization, be different if it was taught by someone with Asian heritage? As a transracial adoptee, I benefited greatly from the white lens and educational experiences. Yet, it slowly washed away appreciations for my individual racial, ethnic and cultural histories. “Home” became more vague, distant, elusive, and unfamiliar.

Fast forward to my time as a first year college student. It was here, where I fell in love with the idea of having a career in higher education, more specifically within student affairs. I had been hired on as a resident assistant (RA), under the mentorship of the Housing Director, Luke Botzheim, who still is there today and still remains a close friend and mentor. I can remember going through RA training, where one of the first activities we did was to draw our life map, highlighting significant moments in time for each of us, and sharing them with the team. Luke shared first, where part of his map showed graduating with his master’s in student development. I asked him what that was and what I meant. From there on, I was hooked. I knew that was wanted I wanted to do for my life.

What came significantly from this mentorship, was the global appreciation for experiences and individuality. Luke consistently advocated that a global perspective would provide a true holistic student experience. It didn’t necessarily mean that international travel had to be part of a student’s experience, although it was often encouraged. It did mean, engagement within the college community to learn, explore and understand world-wide ideas, histories, and values. An analysis by BrckaLorenz and Gieser (2011) “suggest that growth in global awareness and the sorts of experiences that students have in the classroom are linked.” Personally, I engaged myself in classes focused on global affairs, international economics and linguistics and women’s studies. Through experiential learning and co-curricular opportunities, I participated in the Latin American Student Association, Black Student Association, and helped to put on the annual International Night Celebration. I also attended student activities celebrating underrepresented communities.

As I continued my undergraduate studies at Boise State University, I continued to engage myself in classes and co-curricular opportunities that continued to reinforce the value of intercultural awareness to build up competencies that required me to think more critically and while building competencies in diverse fields. To enforce intercultural competencies, I even focused my studies to emphasize in international relations. I wanted to ensure myself that my education would be influenced by global contributors, cultural competent minds, and an internationally focused thought provoking curriculum.

These formative experiences only worked to enhance my global awareness and appreciation for diversity through thought, traditions, experiences, race, gender and culture. They continue to be part of my personal platform in ensuring that I advocate for education to be global and intersectional. My collection of social, family and educational capitol enlightened me towards a career in higher education, because of pure potential impact that I could have in helping to shape future leaders. I love the pure concept, yet complexities of student development that can allow educator and student to navigate college intersections and challenge biases.

Today, working in admissions, I may not have any direct effect on curriculum development, or student programs and engagement activities. However, within my sphere of influence, I continuously look for ways to incorporate global and inclusive practices. Even if these initiatives only have a minor impact on the students, families and friends that I encounter, I am satisfied with knowing that I worked hard to align the admissions experiences with global awareness and inclusivity. This could include how I speak and engage during campus visits, cross-campus collaborations, targeted outreach efforts, and strategic planning.

Why am I doing all this? Why have I touched on my transracial-transnational adoptee experiences? Why did I discuss parent involvement, and educational representation – in particular with race and ethnicity? Why did I bring up global educational awareness and intercultural competencies? I bring all these discussions forward because not only are they part of my experiences, but also because it is the work that I hope to be doing within my graduate studies and my professional career in higher education. My aim is to be able to advocate for the underrepresented and the voiceless. I want to continue the discussion around transracial adoptees in higher education and disaggregate the data that tends to generalize the Asian-American student experiences. I want each and every student that I may have an impact on, to know their individual stories matter.

The ultimate difference I want to make in education is at the national systemic level. I have high aspirations to one day become the U.S. Secretary of Education, where I could have the opportunity to influence national policy to positively impact education. I feel the affairs of education have been stuck in doldrums over the past several decades. Systemically, our education system has shifted the focus away from student achievement to capital growth. Drew DiSilver (2017) from the Pew Research Center breaks it down through several different studies that show student achievements in the US still lags far behind that of other countries. Additionally, Anthony Cilluffo (2017), also from the Pew Research Center, found that student loan debts had topped over $1.3 trillion, as of June 2017. In one decade, student loans had increased two and half times, a symptom of the rise in cost of going to college. With these attributes, how can the Department of Education continue to stay true to its mission of “ensuring equal access” (Dept. of Education, 2017).

Unresolved to me, on a personal level is exploring my transracial-transnational adoptee experience in education, and working to identify the needs of this community in higher education. Through disaggregated data, the hope would be to isolate areas of concern and areas of opportunity to support the transracial adoptee community through academic achievements. Additionally, unresolved to me on a professional level, is something that I know will take time and patience to overcome, as I continue through my graduate studies. Along this path, I hope to become more competently charged in the field of higher education to support the underprivileged and underrepresented, and to advocate for those who may not have a voice or seat at the decision making table. Ultimately, continue shifting away from being a gatekeeper of education, to becoming a facilitator in academia and student affairs.


A Aeriele. (2017, September 26). Thoughts on Home. [Web log comment]Retrieved from http://www.thewelders.org/thoughts-on-home-aeriel-ashlee/

BrckaLorenz, A., & Gieser, J. (2011). Global Awareness and Student Engagement. Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, 12, 1-28.

United States Department of Education. (2017). About ED Overview and Mission Statement. [30, September 2017]. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/landing.jhtml

Henderson, A.T., Mapp, K.L., Averett, A., Buttram, J., Donnelly, D., Fowler, M., . . . Wood, L. (2002). A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 30, 24-42.

Egalite, A.J., Kisida, B., & Winters. M.A. (2015). Representation in the Classroom: The Effect of Own- Race/Ethnicity Teacher Assignment on Student Achievement. Harvard Kennedy School, 17, 1-38.

Pew Research Center. (2017). U.S. Students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries. [15, February 2017]. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internationally-math-science/

Pew Research Center. (2017). 5 facts about student loans. [24, August 2017] Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/24/5-facts-about-student-loans/

Hing Potter is currently a first year graduate student at Northeastern University, pursuing a Masters in Education with a focus in Higher Education Administration. Adopted from Cambodia in 1990, he grew up on Whidbey Island, an hour north of Seattle, in Washington State. Professionally, Hing's experience includes time at Edmonds Community College, Boise State University, and College of Western Idaho. Outside of higher education, Hing volunteers his time serving on the Board of Directors for the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce, Edmonds Young Professionals and Young Leaders United of United Way Snohomish County. Hing also has been holding his own speaking engagements called “Social Justice 101: Why Social Justice Matters,” speaking within the local community about equality, equity, intersectionality and human compassion through social justice. And within the past year, he has been exploring photography, with a focus on landscape and outdoor lifestyles. His newest project focuses on womxn empowerment through social, political and personal spaces. Hing Potter received his Bachelors of Arts from Boise State University in Political Science, International Relations. Twitter/Instagram: @hingdpotter