Inside, outside and in-between: Identities, literacies and educational policies in the lives of Cambodian women and girls in Philadelphia

Ellen Skilton Sylvester, University of Pennsylvania


This study investigates how identities, literacies and educational policies have influenced the educational experiences and future plans of several Cambodian women and girls in Philadelphia. Through ethnographic research in the homes, neighborhoods, schools and adult education programs of these women and girls, the study addresses differences and commonalties across generations, socioeconomic classes, and neighborhoods over an extended period of time. The research took place in the midst of two very different visions of Cambodians in the United States. On the one hand, Cambodians are often asked to live up to the model minority stereotype assumed to be the description of all Asian Americans. On the other, they are often seen mainly as poor, illiterate farmers who are struggling in school and are victims of circumstance. This research points out that neither of these extreme versions of Cambodian identity fit the reality. It also addresses how Cambodians frame their own cultural identities and how peer identities are often a powerful force in the social and academic lives of Cambodian girls. The challenges many of these women and girls face in learning to read and write English are often seen in relation to short schooling histories in Cambodia, differences between Khmer and English, and little exposure to reading and writing in their first language. Although this study addresses these explanations for their literacy practices in the United States, it also suggests that educational policies and practices often treat the Cambodian students' native language as a problem rather than a resource, and provide few opportunities for these students to practice and learn the literacy skills needed to become "literate insiders" in the United States. Finally, this study also explores the varied educational programs the women and girls attend with an eye to how educational policies and practices influence the ability of Cambodian women and girls to engage in meaningful learning. Although researchers often look to characteristics of students to explain school failure or "non-participation" in adult education programs, this study highlights the role educational policies and practices play in shaping students' learning, participation and achievement.

Subject Area

Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology|Bilingual education|Multicultural education|Adult education|Continuing education|Language arts

Recommended Citation

Sylvester, Ellen Skilton, "Inside, outside and in-between: Identities, literacies and educational policies in the lives of Cambodian women and girls in Philadelphia" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9727297.