Asian Pacific American

#MNPSVoices: Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month
Posted on 05/10/2021
Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month

They are teachers, coaches, and administrators, security guards, information technology and exceptional education experts, nutrition services workers and tutors and librarians, star students, bus drivers, and more.

Some came to the United States as children with their parents or on their own as adults. Others were born right here.

They all share a commitment to education, to service, to helping others. The MNPS employees and student we profile today are just a handful of the Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans in the district’s workforce and student body. As we celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, we hope you’ll enjoy reading about the work they do, what they’ve achieved, and the values and experiences that have inspired them.

Xiyan Zhu, Valedictorian

AAPI Month

Xiyan Zhu is on her way to the Big Apple and the Ivy League. 

The valedictorian of the Class of 2021 at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School, Zhu has a spotless academic record, a perfect ACT score, and a stellar resume spanning academics, varsity athletics, and volunteer work. She has studied at the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, a joint venture between the university and MNPS, and served as an officer of the Technology Student Association of Tennessee.

She also has a desire to help younger students succeed. Zhu, who will attend Columbia University in New York this fall and plans to study electrical engineering, wants to open doors for girls and members of minority groups who love the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and math – as much as she does.

“My middle school had TSA, robotics, and a STEM class,” Zhu said. “These really helped develop my interest in STEM (especially engineering). I am very grateful for all the opportunities and exposure I had, and I genuinely believe that without these experiences, I would not be the person I am today (or going into electrical engineering).

“And so however possible, I want to give back to my community, to provide these opportunities and experiences, and motivate people! To start, I've been volunteering at the Adventure Science Center to help kids develop an interest in science. It starts off small, but I believe that it is so important for society that everyone has equal opportunity to be exposed to, to try, and then to get involved and pursue STEM fields.”

Zhu was born in China and moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was 3 years old. She was 8 when they moved to Nashville, where she attended MNPS’s Granbery Elementary School and Rose Park Magnet Math and Science Middle School. After 15 years of growing up in America, she said she holds onto the Asian value of respecting one’s elders – and combines it with a more Western value of seeing friends as family.

“I try to motivate everyone to do the best they can,” she said.

Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School Principal Angela McShepard-Ray called Zhu “a dependable student, deep thinker, budding researcher, athlete, and natural leader.”

“Xiyan is truly a unique young woman,” McShepard-Ray said. “Whether she's engaged in the rigorous curriculum of the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt University, conducting interactive experiments with children as an Adventure Science Center volunteer, or energetically playing MLK varsity soccer, she approaches all her activities with unbridled enthusiasm, optimism, a spirit of cooperation, and pride in accomplishing specific goals.”

Ada Collins, Numeracy Coach

ada collins

Ada Collins was born in Nashville but spent much of her early life in the suburbs of Middle Tennessee. When her family moved back into the city and she enrolled at McGavock High School, a new world opened up for her.

“It was one of the first times I saw other kids who looked like me,” said Collins, who is now a numeracy coach at Tusculum Elementary School and previously taught at Fall-Hamilton and J.E. Moss.

Collins’ mother and father, who are from China and Vietnam, respectively, immigrated to the United States in their 20s and met while working at a restaurant in Chicago. Her Asian heritage and her parents’ example instilled the values of hard work, perseverance, endurance, and loyalty, which she brings to Tusculum every day.

“Our staff, we just work well together,” she said. “We just have that trust, and we’re very honest with each other and work as a team. That’s something I grew up valuing in my family, that teamwork and loyalty. I think that’s why I love working here so much.”

On a typical day, Collins helps math teachers plan lessons; assists with interventions to help students academically; and makes sure students who are English learners – more than 60 percent of the Tusculum population – get the supports they need in their math classes.

“I love the diversity of our kids,” she said. “We have so many kids from different countries, speaking so many languages. It’s just so neat to see kids from all over. They see kids that look like them but see kids that don’t look like them as well.”

Quy Hoang Duong (Kim), Parent Outreach Translator

quy dong kim

Quy Hoang Duong (Kim) was born and raised in Vietnam. She arrived in the U.S. at the age of 33 to pursue a higher education degree. Before joining MNPS’s English Learners Office as a Vietnamese parent outreach translator in 2012, she worked as a translator for a Korean company in Vietnam.

Duong’s daily tasks consist of interpreting verbally and translating written documents from Vietnamese to English and vice versa, both at school and district levels. She and her husband, Winston Vo, have two daughters, ages 12 and 10, both enrolled in MNPS schools.

Duong said her Asian heritage “deeply influences” her personal and professional life.

“My culture gives a high value on a person’s reputation, influence, dignity, and honor,” she said. “We called it a ‘face.’ Because of this cultural concept, I always try to be a ‘face’ in my life. When I came here, I tried to obtain a higher education in order to have a better life. In parenting, I am also influenced by this cultural concept. I teach and train my daughters to gain a ‘face’ in the family, community, and society.”

In the job, Duong always goes beyond her duties to excel in every activity she gets involved in.

“I think when people compliment me, show respect to me, or do something to increase my self-esteem, they give me a face. That is why I always exert my efforts to fulfill my duties so that people don’t have a reason to complain about me,” she said.

When asked about any advice she can provide new MNPS employees toward a successful career, Duong said, “I think they should be warm, accessible, enthusiastic, and caring. They should be approachable to everyone who needs them. … Once you care and are willing to help others, you have done half of your job duties because MNPS staff’s job is to serve students and families.”

One particular thing about Duong’s heritage that she would like to pass down to her children, students, families, and the community at large is respect, particularly to the elderly.

“Respect is a key factor in Vietnamese value system,” she said. “In my culture, one is expected to show respect to people regardless of age, status, or position within or without the family. This is a value system that I want them to maintain and pass down to others.”

Leslie Arms, Exceptional Education Instructional Coach

leslie arms

Growing up in Memphis and northern Mississippi as the child of a Chinese father and an American mother, Leslie Arms sometimes struggled with being the only Asian-American child in her school. Not fitting in with her classmates was often challenging.

But those difficulties have informed Arms’ career with MNPS, first as an English Language teacher and now as an instructional coach who supports 37 elementary schools’ work with Exceptional Education students.

“It was an interesting life growing up, being in two worlds,” Arms said. “We are such a diverse district. Even though there were hardships, it’s exciting that I had that experience to see the perspective of some of our students.”

Arms started college on a pre-med track and took a lot of science classes, but she eventually started feeling that wasn’t right for her. A counselor helped her see that teaching would allow her to make the most impact, and she loves having the opportunity to help and empower students every day throughout the northern half of the district.

Now she’s working on an Education Specialist degree in leadership and administration at Lipscomb University - and applying what she’s learning there to her work. It all fits in with the cultural values ingrained in her as an Asian-American, Arms said: working hard, being committed to education, and “contributing to the community.”

Lili Cai, Chinese Teacher

lili caiLili Cai (pronounced “tsai”) was a teacher when she moved to the United States from China to pursue a master’s degree in education at Tennessee State University. She stayed at TSU to work in the admissions office for more than 10 years until she heard about an opportunity to teach her native language at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School in 2014.

Cai teaches Chinese to students in grades 7-12 at MLK, from beginners’ courses through Advanced Placement Chinese.

“The students teach me English, and I teach them Chinese,” she said with a modesty that understates her bilingual skills.

Cai enjoys sharing Chinese culture with her students, who celebrate the Chinese New Year each year with performances in the city. With China developing so rapidly, she believes learning the language will give students an advantage in the future, just as she and many other Chinese students benefited from learning English at an early age.

She said Chinese culture values education, not only in the formal sense but also through being “more of a listener than a talker.” That's one reason she loves interacting with her students.

“We can learn from each other,” Cai said. “I feel I can learn from anybody.”

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