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ThreeSixty Journalism: Starting from behind: Going to college sometimes means catching up


This is my last semester at Normandale Community College, where I am going to be the first in my family to graduate with an associate degree.

Next year, I plan to continue my studies at the University of Minnesota. I have a B average, but getting here hasn’t been easy for me.

As an immigrant student who went through public schools in Minneapolis, I believe that my experience helps explain why so many Minnesota students — about 31 percent — graduate from high school not fully prepared for college-level work.

When I started at Normandale three years ago, I tested below the college level in reading, writing and math. Anybody who takes the tests wants to receive a score of 1,000 or more because that is college level, which means you don’t have to take remedial classes. I was not that lucky.

I received 960 on the reading test and 800 on the writing test so I had to take one remedial reading class and two for writing.

I wasn’t alone. Three out of 10 Minnesota students who graduate from high school and go to college also have to take remedial classes.

My first year entering college was almost like my first year entering high school. I needed help with grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, even verb tense.

For some reason, what I learned in high school was all forgotten. I maybe should blame myself for not remembering the study of writing we learned in high school. I also think the schools could have done a better job preparing me.

My family is from Cambodia, but we moved to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand when I was 4. At home, I was the one of six kids who most loved the Khmer language — speaking, music, news.

I spoke it at home with parents. I still translate English news stories into Khmer for my parents. They want to know what’s going on in America and in the world and this is one way for me to remember my Khmer language. Cambodian music also played a role for me. Listening to the music and picturing the meaning helped me continue to memorize my language.

Dymanh Chhoun
Dymanh Chhoun

But I needed English to succeed in America. Armatage Elementary School in Minneapolis was the first American school I entered. All my dad did was bring me to my class and say in Khmer, “Goodbye. I hope you can keep your mouth shut.”

At home, I talked all the time, but this time I would have to keep my mouth shut because I didn’t know how to speak English. I was just 6 years old and could only understand Khmer.

I spent most of my time in special classes with other immigrant kids. While we were learning basic vocabulary, the white kids from middle-class homes were learning to read books.

By the time I left Armatage after third grade, I understood English well and spoke well enough to get in trouble for talking too much. Writing was a little harder; I only remembered the words that I considered important. I didn’t care much about writing because I was too young to know that writing was going to help me in the future. My reading skills weren’t great either, I was still trying to learn my vowels and how to sound out words.

At Lyndale School, where I went from 4th to 6th grade, even the native-born kids were behind. More kids were poor, and I felt like everyone was the same as me. Like me, they were trying to learn to read and write English, even though English was their native language.

The ESL classes helped me understand how to read and write better with other students whose second language was English. I wish I could have understood how important learning in the class was and how important the lessons were going to be in the future.

After seventh grade at Anthony Middle School, I didn’t have to take ESL anymore. I didn’t know the reason. All I cared about was that I was done, and I was happy.

I remember making fun of my brothers and friends who still had to take the class. Now I wonder if more time in ESL would have helped me master the grammar I still struggle with.

As a freshman at Roosevelt High School, almost every day I had to stay after class to ask my geography teacher how to do the homework. I knew how to read, but I didn’t understand many words describing the work.

In 10th grade I took her again for history and started to understand the words and their meaning. That meant I did not have to stay after class to asked questions anymore. I remember how happy I was.

Most of the education I received from my teachers was good. I should have tried harder to focus and learned not to play around or skip out of classes. My GPA was 2.0 in high school, for which I have myself to blame. The teachers could not force me to learn; I had to force myself to do that.

I also think that teachers should have been harder graders, demanding more for students to pass their classes. The grading was too easy for students like me. Students should not pass their classes unless they accomplish their work, not just attend the classes and get a passing grade.

If the teachers let the students understand the consequence of failing, that might have driven students like me to work harder to get a passing grade.

Patricia McGowan, an English instructor for Normandale Community College for more than 20 years, isn’t surprised that so many students need extra help when they come to college.

“We have many students from backgrounds that disadvantage them in terms of coming to college (and being) able to write college-level essays. Students whose parents are not very well educated themselves,” she said. “To me, it is not very surprising that we have about 30 percent of students who need remedial classes.”

At the same time, she thinks many high school teachers should set higher standards and be tougher on students who fall short. “Make the expectation clear, and when the students don’t meet them, fail them,” McGowan said.

My little sister goes to Lakeville South High School. She is only 14 and her vocabulary is much greater than mine when I was at that age. When I have to write college papers, I always ask Sarah to proofread and check my vocabulary, punctuation, grammar and even verb tense.

Why is she more skilled? Maybe she reads more books or maybe she loves learning more. Maybe being born in America and hearing English all her life has helped. Maybe going to Lakeville High School, where most students are white and middle class, also helps.

I hope when I have my own kids, I can help them understand how important education is in this country. As  President Baracl Obama said recently, “Whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option.”

The road for them to get there will be hard, but at least my kids will have a good back-up — educated parents helping guide them to success in this country.

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