Via Project AAPI Thrive, Nestor Enguerra, Jr., is working to bring Asian American and Pacific Islander students from the margins to the center of higher education.
Nestor Enguerra, Jr., remembers being 13 years old and walking through the parking garage at Sea-Tac airport. “I thought the garages were air-conditioned because of how cold it was in there,” he said.
Enguerra grew up in American Samoa, a U.S. territory of almost 50,000 people in the south Pacific Ocean, 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii. The first airplane he ever boarded took him to the Pacific Northwest. “Samoa is super-hot,” he said. “I came to Washington in autumn and had no experience with the kind of weather we have here.”
The oldest of seven siblings, Enguerra came to Washington for education. “My parents wanted me to pursue the American dream,” he said. “I had some relatives in Tukwila who invited me to stay with them so I could go to school.”
Both Enguerra’s parents worked for a fish processing plant in American Samoa. “My mom worked in the factory and my dad was a welder for them,” said Enguerra. “They saved money to be available to afford to send me to Washington.”
Those first few months in his new home were a culture shock for Enguerra. “I was this odd kid who wore whatever warm clothes his uncle had left over,” he said. Enguerra enrolled at Tukwila’s Foster High School. “I came later in the year, so everyone had already made friends.”
It may have been tough initially, but Enguerra didn’t give up. “My mindset when I came here was that I had to do my best in school to support my family back at home,” he said. Things started to improve as Enguerra made connections with other Samoan and Pacific Islander students at Foster.
A good student (he graduated as valedictorian), Enguerra excelled in the classroom but felt more at ease participating in afterschool programs and extracurricular activities. “There was a Pacific Islander outreach program that came to the school,” he said. “They talked to me about decolonization and why it was important for Pacific Islanders to go to school.”
The outreach program was an example of what is called “near-peer” mentoring. The people who talked to Enguerra while he was in high school were themselves Pacific Islander students at the UW in Seattle. The program, called PIONEER, was advised by Dr. Rick Bonus, a faculty member in American Ethnic Studies, but it was run by a group of multi-cultural student organizations. Coincidentally, current UW Tacoma Chancellor Sheila Edwards Lange was an equity and inclusion leader on the Seattle campus at that time.
Following graduation from Foster High School, Enguerra enrolled at UW. “I originally thought I’d major in computer science,” he said. “As a first-generation student, a person of color and a Pacific Islander, you are always taught to be an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer because those professions typically pay well.”
Enguerra opted to take a different, more personal route. “I decided to pursue ethnic studies because it explained my experience,” he said. Enguerra completed his bachelor’s then began his work on a master of education. “This was around 2008,” he said. “I also worked as a teaching assistant and was making two to three times more than what my parents were making back in Samoa.”
Two things happened that would change Enguerra’s life trajectory. First, the 2008 economic collapse that started in the housing sector spilled over into the larger national and international financial system. “There weren’t a lot of job opportunities in Samoa,” he said. Enguerra’s parents and six siblings decided to move to Washington. “To my parents it looked like I was making a lot of money,” he said. “When they came over I had to make a decision to either continue my education or find a better-paying job.”
Enguerra left the UW. He found work at a warehouse and helped his siblings also find employment. At one point, Enguerra, his parents and siblings all lived together in a tiny apartment before they had the resources to rent a larger home.
At the time, Highline College, like UW Tacoma today, was designated as a minority-serving institution due to the number of AAPI students who enrolled.
“I started at Highline in 2016, and stayed in that role until the program at Highline ended,” said Enguerra, “which was in June 2020.” That winter and spring, the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world, shutting down in-person operations at colleges and universities around the globe, including at UW in March.
“Before my position ended, I collaborated with local two- and four-year colleges throughout Washington to host a series of virtual events for AAPI students and community members. It was an extensive multi-day set of activities in May 2020.”
“I and the other event leaders had conflicting emotions,” said Enguerra. “We never felt more alone and also never felt more connected at the same time with our AAPI community. We were all working from home, but word of the event spread. Because it was online, we ended up having AAPI participants from all across the U.S. and from Hawaii, Alaska, American Samoa, Guam and even places like New Zealand and other Pacific Islander countries.”
This past summer, Enguerra became the project director for UW Tacoma’s AAPI Thrive project. The U.S. Department of Education awarded UW Tacoma a $2 million grant to expand supports and services for AAPI and low-income students. “I think we (Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans) were always on the margins of education,” said Enguerra. “That gets internalized and suggests you are not important. With AAPI Thrive, we are changing that narrative and saying you are important.”
Part of Enguerra’s focus is on meeting the requirements of the grant. “My priority is making sure students that I work with have a good experience and are able to learn as much as they want to learn,” he said. Part of that learning is an understanding of self-worth. “I want to help students understand their significance and the significance of their culture, not just to themselves but to larger society.
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