When Sony Stewart was finishing the in-classroom requirement for her teaching credential, she felt satisfaction knowing that her students were moving on to the next grade level brimming with knowledge about earth science.
But something tugged at her, and it wasn’t a student asking a question. Stewart felt compelled to reach out to underserved Asian communities — such as Cambodian, Lao, Hmong, native Hawaiian and smaller Pacific islander groups like Tongan and Samoan — and spread awareness about getting a college education.
“I got the Partners In Education scholarship. It was a wonderful experience. When I finished, I still wanted to be in education but I felt a little disconnect,” Stewart says. “When I was student-teaching, I don’t know when the moment officially hit. I know I was already starting to feel some of it when I was going through the process. I felt my strength was in outreach.”
Reaching out to Asian communities was part of her work as a volunteer student ambassador while she finished her teaching credential at Cal Poly Pomona. Stewart was able to identify with the first-generation experience of Asians in those communities and knew the difficulties posed by assimilation into American culture.
As the program assistant for the Asian American Pacific Islander Initiative on campus, Stewart’s passion is seeking out pockets of smaller Asian communities in Southern California and educating their children about resources that can help them get into college. The initiative was launched three years ago with the backing of President Emeritus Michael Ortiz.
“I’m Cambodian so this is very personal to me. It hits home very much because when I started college, I was the oddball to go to school,” Stewart says. “There are certain Asian American communities that we found within the initiative that are underserved. Those communities have very low college admission rates and low graduation rates.”
The initiative falls under the supervision of Thavery Lay-Bounpraseuth, the coordinator of the Asian & Pacific Islander Student Center on campus. She knew Stewart from her work as a student ambassador and saw firsthand her enthusiasm in working with students and spreading the word about college.
“A good part of it is that Sony is a first-generation college student herself. She’s had the challenge of finding her own way of how to get to college. She did not have a system to groom her and help her through the process,” Lay-Bounpraseuth says. “Sony has the passion and drive to help other students who also don’t have that support system. She’s been able to give back and be a role model, showing students that it’s possible for them to seek higher education.”
Getting to college was a struggle for Stewart. Her first choice was Cal Poly Pomona, but her father felt that the university was too far from their close-knit Cambodian community in Long Beach. The family emigrated from Cambodia in 1984 to escape political instability. Stewart and her father reached a compromise on Cal State Long Beach because the campus was “just down the street.”
But soon, the old-school thinking of her father about the traditional role of females in the family would clash with the new-school perspective of an assimilated Asian American. That eventually formed a chasm.
“I couldn’t go back home. My relationship with my parents was at a point where we weren’t speaking. I had to support myself financially or I was going to be homeless.” Stewart says. “There were times when I would just cry. I knew I had to finish. The majority of the people that I came across in my community did not finish college. Everyone was working very mediocre jobs and minimum wage. I was already making minimum wage as a college student. I said, ‘No, this isn’t for me.’ I was thinking long haul.”
Stewart earned a bachelor’s in liberal studies from Cal State Long Beach while juggling a full load of courses and a full-time job. She is the oldest of six children and carved out time between work and school to make sure her siblings were staying on track.
“Education has always been my saving grace,” Stewart says. “I preached that to my brothers and sisters. If I fail, then I fail them. They’ve really kept me focused on finishing.”
Stewart says that all five of her siblings have degrees or are working on degrees. The rift between Stewart and her parents has mostly healed because “I’m married and more settled down.” She met her husband, Kevin, who is an engineer, at Cal Poly Pomona.
Although Stewart isn’t in front of a class, she still possesses a passion for education. She is a special-needs substitute teacher for the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools and is making first-generation Asian students aware about the possibility of a college education. Stewart also is aiming for a master’s in educational leadership at Cal Poly Pomona.
“At the end of the day, if you’re sitting down with me, do I want to be talking to you about the different layers of the earth?” Stewart says. “No, I want to be talking about where do you want to be 10 years from now, what are your plans after college? Just being able to share the information, I get the same satisfaction.”