OAKLAND, Calif. –When Dr. Rowena Tomaneng was pursuing her doctorate at a southern California higher education institution in the early 1990s, everything seemed to flow smoothly.
Or, so she thought. After all, Tomaneng had already earned a master’s degree in English literature and enjoyed a comfortable network of mentors that included several academicians of color. Also, she felt certain that a career in education and in teaching was her calling.
Dr. Rowena Tomaneng
But her doctoral studies came to a screeching halt – at least, for a while – when she drew scathing rebukes for her writings and for citing intellectuals such as bell hooks.
“I was told that my work wasn’t academic enough,” said Tomaneng, who’s now president of Berkeley City College. “The handful of professors of color among my mentors were, unfortunately, non-tenured. So, they couldn’t defend me. There I was, presenting my work but being told I couldn’t write, that I couldn’t look to the work of certain scholars.”
Tomaneng added, “Emotionally, I was completely torn up.”
Her remarks came last week during the annual conference of the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education (APAHE). Since its 1987 inception, the organization has developed programs and addressed issues impacting Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). It has evolved from a group of almost exclusively Californians into one with national reach.
Unlike many academic meetings in this country, however, the APAHE conference remains distinctive for attracting quite a few undergraduates who not only attend, but also present papers and put on panel discussions covering myriad topics. This year, for instance, about one-third of the record 750 attendees were undergraduates.
As one of very few Filipina college presidents nationally, Tomaneng shared some of her career ups and downs at the conference so that others, especially women, could learn from them and not feel alone when dealing with their own difficulties.
When Tomaneng was professionally chastised more than 20 years ago, “I made the painful decision to leave my institution,” she told her APAHE audience. “Fortunately, my husband’s work took us to the San Francisco Bay Area. After we relocated, I started over.”
Back then, Tomaneng joined the faculty of De Anza College and steadily climbed the ranks of the administration there. Eventually, she waded back into the waters of graduate school, landing in the University of San Francisco’s international and multicultural education program, where she earned her doctorate.
“I had a wonderful experience there,” she said of USF. “I had been damaged in the 1990s but it was important not to give up completely, even though I made the painful decision back then to leave the doctoral program that I had originally enrolled in.”
Tomaneng wasn’t the only female conference-goer to recount emotionally hurtful experiences in the higher education realm.
In a session titled “Sacramento State Hmong Women Rising As One to Reclaim Their Identities,” several panelists shared stories about how family elders too often doubt the motives behind young Hmong-American women pursuing college degrees. Because the Hmong are descended from farmers in countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the notion of a woman attending college seems unnecessary, perhaps even scandalous.
For instance, Pa Vue recalled an uncle’s remark to her upon learning of her plans to leave the family home in Chico in northern California to enroll in graduate studies 400 miles away at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“He accused me of going away to school just to have sex,” Vue said, amid gasps and sighs of exasperation from the audience. “My first thoughts were curse words toward my uncle. My second thought was, ‘Gee, I don’t have to go anywhere just to have sex with lots of people.’ As a Hmong-American woman, it is lonely to go through college after hearing comments like that.”
Vue, who is Chico State University’s writing center coordinator, encouraged other Hmong-American women not to bottle up their emotions. “We have to create spaces to share our stories with each other.”
Panelist Susan Chang reiterated the negative stereotype that Hmong elders hold about college-going women when she shared her story with session participants.
Because Chang unexpectedly became pregnant at age 17, she dropped out of college to get married and start raising a family. Years later, when she resumed her formal studies, “my husband was warned that I was going to cheat on him and that he would raise all our kids by himself,” Chang said, a catch in her voice from stifling tears.
Chang is graduate lead mentor of Sacramento State University’s Full Circle Project, an initiative that aims to improve retention and graduation rates of underrepresented AAPIs – including Hmong.
During the APAHE conference session featuring Tomaneng, titled “Women in Executive Leadership Positions,” she encouraged participants to be brave in the face of adversity and opposition. She said that as the oldest daughter in her family growing up in southern California, she initially learned how to advocate for herself “because I was so angry at my brother having many privileges growing up.”
“For me,” she said, “it all started at home.”
In more recent years, her frustrations tend to surface at local Chamber of Commerce meetings, It’s not unusual for her to raise her hand in an entire room of White men and, after being ignored for several minutes, speak up with her question or remark.
“It’s okay to get angry,” Tomaneng said. “Just learn to navigate different audiences.”