UW students and members of the local Southeast Asian community say they were caught off guard when the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity (OMA&D) chose not to renew the Southeast Asian recruitment coordinator position.

The position, occupied by Latana Thaviseth until Jan. 10, was responsible for partnering with community-based organizations that are assisting underprivileged Southeast Asians in the Puget Sound region. She, like the rest of the Recruitment and Outreach team, helped identify students interested in attending the UW and set up college access workshops for them. Her year-long service resulted in the creation of more than 16 new liaisons with local Southeast Asian organizations.

The Southeast Asian recruitment coordinator position started as a temporary “internship” along with two similar posts: a recruiter for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and another for African-American males, both of which ended in the summer of 2013.

“Thaviseth was hired as a temporary [employee]. It was always temporary, and now that time has come to an end,” said Sheila Edwards Lange, vice provost of diversity.

After OMA&D had gathered and disaggregated data on the general Asian student population, Lange concluded that a recruiter was not the best solution for addressing the educational achievement gap experienced by Southeast Asians.

Disaggregation is a process that provides researchers with a more in-depth examination of a certain population. The goal of disaggregating is often to determine methods or plans that can better service historically disadvantaged minorities.

“We started down the path thinking maybe a recruiter was the answer, but we found out that we actually don’t have a problem recruiting,” Lange said. “What we have is a problem in our K-12 level.”

OMA&D met with members of the Southeast Asian American Access in Education (SEA3eD) Coalition and other representatives Jan. 30 at Highline Community College (HCC) to discuss how they should move forward with the cutoff. SEA3eD is one of the community-based organizations Thaviseth and OMA&D worked with last year.

During the meeting, several people expressed concern that pre-college students who are of Southeast Asian descent will no longer have as strong of a relationship with the UW as they used to when Thaviseth was working.

“[Latana] really stretched her wings to connect with our community, and I think that’s the buzz that we’re all feeling — the attention,” said Ekk Sisavatdy, co-founder of SEA3eD and retention and advising program manager at HCC. “It’s a journey that the UW had gotten right, and it’s hard to see someone go with that much effect.”

At the meeting, Lange provided statistics indicating that the number of Southeast Asians attending the UW is proportionate to the percentage of Southeast Asian population in Washington state.

For example, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center reports that for the Fall 2013 Enrollment Summary, 0.37 percent of the UW student body was made up of Cambodians while Cambodians as a whole comprised 0.34 percent of the entire Washington state population. These numbers fluctuate every quarter for every ethnic group.

Vietnamese Friendship Association director of operations James Hong was not entirely convinced that the numbers fully justify OMA&D’s decision to let go of Thaviseth.

“We can all acknowledge that just because you have proportionate enrollment does not mean there is propor tionate, or equal, or even equitable opportunity,” Hong said to Lange.

Beyond OMA&D, the issues of data disaggregation and services to Southeast Asians are concepts that have not been fully grasped by institutions even at the UW, Lange said. She then invited the group to recommend someone who could work at the President’s Minority Community Advisory Committee, who would be able to speak directly to UW President Michael Young about Southeast Asian matters, something the group was receptive to.

These three internships were possible due to Karl Smith’s unexpected promotion in the fall of 2012. Smith was the director of recruitment and outreach and is now the associate vice chancellor or chief admissions officer at UW Tacoma.

Carlos González, formerly a counseling services coordinator, has replaced Smith as the Recruitment and Outreach Program’s new assistant director. His position has been adjusted to focus solely on working with middle and high school students through ambassadors and community-based organizations, Lange said.

According to Lange, OMA&D chose to use savings from Smith’s salary to conduct three experiments. ASUW Asian Student Commission Director Tony Vo voiced his concerns on the underrepresentation of Southeast Asians to Lange, and so Thaviseth was appointed to work in the Recruitment and Outreach Program.

Lange said OMA&D will also respond to the discontinuation of the Southeast Asian recruiter position by increasing the number of ambassadors. As of now, there are a total of two

Southeast Asian ambassadors out of 37 employed at the Recruitment and Outreach Program.

The Student Outreach Ambassador Program has been supporting the Recruitment and Outreach Program in “efforts to develop and execute outreach programs for underrepresented minority middle and high school students throughout the state” since 1999.

Lange emphasized the importance of reaching out to younger pre-college students as a whole, asserting that an ethnic-specific coordinator, such as the Southeast Asian recruiter, is not necessary to fulfill OMA&D objectives.

According to Vo, however, Lange gave the impression that Thaviseth would become a permanent member of the Recruitment and Outreach Program.

“I felt [Lange] also did not know from the beginning what the result would be,” Vo said. “I think the community really thought that this would be a permanent position. Especially when you invest in something, you just don’t take it away.”

Student Advisory Board (SAB) Chair James Keum said that they were not entirely aware that Thaviseth was working on a temporary basis either.

“My opinion is that people didn’t know that her position was temporary or not temporary, any more than I know whether or not some administrative-person working in the HUB’s position was temporary,” Keum said.

On Dec. 2, an article authored by Jacqueline E. Wu for the International Examiner, a nonprofit pan-Asian newspaper published in Seattle, began circulating. The story blames Provost and Executive Vice President Ana Mari Cauce and Lange for dismissing Thaviseth. Wu writes as if Thaviseth was suddenly fired before a group of 30 or so people during an open SAB meeting Nov. 25.

Cauce was not involved in the decision or process of dismissing Thaviseth, according to an email message sent from the Office of the Provost.

“I think we did a poor job, and I have to take personal responsibility, of communicating that the position was temporary,” Lange said.

From that SAB meeting, Keum said it was their understanding that the Southeast Asian recruitment coordinator was always intended to be temporary, unless someone could come up with the money to fund it.

“[There was] not enough to be able to keep Thaviseth’s position,” Keum said.

The role of Southeast Asian recruitment coordinator is not entirely out of the picture. Thaviseth’s responsibilities have now been transferred to Va’eomatoka “Toka” Valu, who is currently the Pacific Islander recruitment coordinator, but some are not confident with the change.

“I am very disappointed,” Vo said. “It’s also very frustrating because it’s basically putting minorities [against] other minorities due to scarce resources.”

Vo, who is Vietnamese, said he believes that Valu is not aware enough of Southeast Asian issues to take on Thaviseth’s responsibilities.

“Why are those two communities (Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander) placed together?” Vo said. “I think there is strength in someone with a similar background to you. [Lange’s] solution is a complete backhand slap.”

Valu declined to comment for this article.

“In my opinion [Valu] will probably do a really excellent job of being sensitive to the needs of the students that he’s trying to outreach to,” Keum said.

Current OMA&D recruitment coordinators are: Tommy Segundo (American Indian/Alaska Native), Candice Garza (Hispanic/Latino), and Jesse Johnson (African American) — each of whom belong to the ethnic group they serve.

“It makes sense to me that if you are a Southeast Asian youth that wants to be at the University of Washington, it’s really meaningful and impactful to see people who are also coming from similar backgrounds,” Keum said.

Nonetheless, a recruiter or an ambassador does not have to be of a particular ethnicity in order to perform recruitment and outreach efforts, they said.

“The University of Washington arguably does try to do its best to service underrepresented minorities in all categories,” Keum said. “But that isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of work to be done about addressing why institutionally certain people are privileged to be here at a four-year university that is nationally accredited.”

Reach reporter Joseph Park at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @seattlezephyr

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