Archiving the Asian-American experience

Anne Chao: Manager, Houston Asian American Archive — Adjunct Lecturer in the Humanities — Rice University

Since 2010, Rice University’s Houston Asian American Archive (HAAA) has chronicled the oral history of Houston’s Asian American community. 

“Houston has the eighth largest Asian American population in the country but does not have an oral history archive to record the contribution of Asian Americans to the city. That’s why we are documenting all this,” said Anne Chao. “My goal is that whoever the next historian of Texas will be — that scholar would have to consult our archive to put in Asian American activities. Because if you look at the textbooks of Texas now, they don’t mention Asian American activities and we’ve been here since the early 20th Century.”

To ensure these valuable voices are preserved, the stories of local Asian-Americans are available on the HAAA website, whereby interviewees such as Nathalie Ho Roff demonstrate the importance of Houston’s vibrant Asian American communities, highlighting how their remarkable experiences reflect the larger spirit of the Bayou City.  

Roff fled Vietnam with her family in 1978 as a child. Their boat sank, tragically killing much of Roff’s family, including her parents. She and her remaining family members were sponsored by a Baptist church in Virginia with help from an aunt who had come to the United States in 1975. Roff and her brother weren’t happy in Virginia. After a visit, their older sister, seeing the conditions they were living in, took them away to Houston, where they stayed with friends of the family. 

Roff went through middle and high school in Houston and eventually made her way to the University of Texas at Austin for college. Roff did everything she could to pay for her education and graduated with only a small amount of loans. 

In 1990 Roff finally attended Baylor College of Medicine, where she earned her M.D. specializing in internal and geriatric medicine. After a childhood filled with strife and tragedy, Roff fought her way to an excellent education and currently serves as a respected wound care physician in the heart of Houston.

Roff is just one of more than 200 Asian-American Houstonians whose stories you can explore on the HAAA website. Visit the website here to explore how these experiences shape and inform our region, and visit the links below to learn more about diversity and immigration in the Houston area. 

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NAMI executive director, advocate for a broader perspective on mental illness

Neal Sarahan: Doctor — Ally — Advocate for mental illness

Annual physicals are a natural rhythm in a modern adult’s life, but nearly 15% of Americans haven’t had contact with a health care professional in the past year. Mental-health check-ups are even less common. Approximately, 1 in 5 adult Americans experiences mental illness in a given year. But even with the prevalence of mental illness, stigma keeps many from therapy, treatment, and recovery. 

“Mental health instability is frightening. It’s also incredibly frustrating,” said Dr. Neal Sarahan, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Houston. “It’s something that we are not attuned to adapting to as parents and employers. This idea that there is a ‘norm,’ which is almost always stable, is not realistic and it’s not true. Too often, when we encounter instability, as individuals, parents, and employers, we are unprepared, and we remain silent, ashamed, and embarrassed.”

Sarahan, who has worked in the mental health industry for more than 40 years, says there has been an increased acceptance and pursuit of understanding mental health, but more work needs to be done for the general population to understand mental health instability. 

“People are trying their best to adapt,” Sarahan said. “But people in the world want to be competent and successful. If I’m a teacher, and this child is making me feel very incompetent, then I might want to exclude them because they don’t make me feel very successful. Similarly, employers are telling us, ‘We have people who have depression and anxiety. We don’t want to lose them, because we need their talents, but we don’t know how to support them.’” 

There are several programs at NAMI of Greater Houston to help employers, parents, teachers, and the general public educate themselves on mental health and how to best help their employees, loved ones, and students live with their mental illness to the best of their abilities. The classes target a wide variety of topics, including the basics of mental health, peer-to-peer and family-to-family support groups, veterans, local jail inmates and active-duty military education classes, and more.

“Helping everybody learn what pours gasoline on the mental instability fire and then what is the flame retardant,” Sarahan said. “Some of the punishment-and-demand systems simply accelerate mental instability. For some, external rewards do not work in an expected manner, because that’s not how that person’s brain works.” 

Sarahan’s desire is for the general public to be aware that mental illness, unlike physical illnesses, aren’t easy fixes, but instead require day-by-day, hour-by-hour attention, patience, and understanding. 

“A lot of parents want to go to a provider and say, ‘Fix my kid,’ like it would be this sort of surgical fix,” Sarahan said. “Well, mental illness doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you need to help peers, parents, and teachers understand the expectations of what this journey is going to be like.”

Sarahan suggests people work to understand mental health at the foundational level. This way, everyone will develop strategies that enhance mental stability, and face the necessary times when depression, trauma, mood, and emotions are out of balance.

“About 80% of our health is directly attributable to our food, diet, and exposure to chaos and injury,” he said. “We have to pay more attention to wellness and building conditions for wellness than seeking easy fixes.”

Sarahan’s mission to change how we think about mental health requires interest and understanding from everyday Houstonians. Visit the links below to learn more about NAMI and how mental health shapes our society.

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Business manager, multi-county commuter

Ryan Stough: Manager — Parent — Commuter

As a six-year Houston resident, Ryan Stough has become all too familiar with one of Houston’s biggest headaches: long commutes. 

As a Pearland resident, Ryan’s job as a general manager at a Houston-area Mister Car Wash Lube Center requires him to commute across two counties each day. And without access to any METRO public transportation from his community, he’s forced to rely solely on his car to complete his daily commute. 

“When we bought the house, we didn’t really think about the commute,” Stough said. “I told my wife to pick an area she liked that was close to her teaching job because my job location is never secure. One day they might have me at one location for six months and the next day I will be at another.” 

In the past three years, Stough’s work location has moved from Humble to Kirby and US-59/I-69 to the Sugar Land area. Currently, he’s commuting from Pearland, which is in Brazoria County, to the Sugar Land location, which is in Fort Bend County. Before moving to the Sugar Land location, he was traveling into Harris County to work off of US-59/I-69 and Kirby. 

“I leave at 5:45 a.m. and it takes about 30 to 35 minutes. If I leave a minute after 6 — and I mean a minute after 6 — then there’s a lot of traffic,” Stough said of his more than 25-mile commute to Sugar Land. “It’s a little better when teachers are on their summer break. But coming back from the Kirby location, it would take me 45 to 50 minutes.”

Stough currently drives his Toyota Tacoma and spends about $120 per month just on gas, but he’s working on repairing his Honda Civic, which would cut his gas bill in half. His wife, Tabitha, also has a vehicle of her own. 

Overall, Stough has come to accept his commute across two Houston-area counties as a part of his life now. “I’m pretty comfortable with the commute,” Stough said. In fact, Stough doesn’t mind his commute so much so that he’s willing to drive further for a higher paying position at the Mister Car Wash location in Humble. “I would make that sacrifice to drive further for much more money,” Stough said. 

But he does keep in mind the cost of his time due to his commute. “I would say the only negative to my commute is the time away from my family because I already work long days and my commute is 30 minutes each way so that adds an extra hour to my workday,” he said.

Lack of access to public transportation in many Houston-area suburbs contributes to longer commutes for many Houstonians. Visit the links below to learn more about public transportation accessibility in the region. 

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Kindergarten teacher, advocate for early childhood education

Blessy George: Advocate — Early Childhood Educator

As a kindergarten teacher in Harris County, Blessy George has had a first-hand view of the impact early childhood education can have on a child’s academic future. 

“At the end of kindergarten, there are high expectations from the students,” George said. “A lot of times, my struggling students at the end of the year are the ones who did not do pre-K. These kids just needed more time.” When it comes to time, there’s only so much a teacher can do to help all of their students achieve success. 

George says she works with her students in small groups of four or five students put together based on academic performance. But when she moves on from small groups and into classroom-wide lessons, some students struggle to follow along.

The fight for early education in Texas has been a long one, but an important one, according to education professionals. Funding for pre-K has been granted and cut every few years since 2011. However, things are beginning to look up after lawmakers recently put money back into the annual budget for full-day pre-k for qualifying students.

While the bill represents a step in the right direction for accessible pre-K, Erin Baumgartner believes real progress starts by addressing Texan’s misconceptions of these valuable programs.

“Right now, pre-K is not the norm,” said Baumgartner, an early education researcher for the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University. “It’s not provided for all students. It’s provided for the at-risk populations, so it may be less common that everyone just assumes a child should be in pre-K somewhere. I think we should be talking about universal pre-K because it’s important to change the expectations and the norms around going to pre-K.”

To George and other teachers like her, pre-k could be considered a prerequisite to ensure success in kindergarten. “They need to learn certain things before they came into kindergarten,” she said. The prerequisites George wishes she saw in every student include identifying all 26 letters (upper case and lower case), identifying all letter sounds, identifying numbers 0-10, and writing your own name. “The challenge with pre-K is it’s not free for everybody — you have to qualify for it,” she said.

To qualify under the Texas bill passed in 2019, students have to be four-years-old, and must meet at least one of the following criteria: be from a low-income family, live in foster care or be homeless, have an active-duty military parent, be a child of a first responder or educator of the school district, or have limited English-speaking skills.

“There’s a lot of families who are not homeless or don’t qualify, but a lot of those families can’t afford to pay for pre-K, either,” George said. “Those are the kids who are really struggling.” To close the gaps for the kids “in the middle,” George works directly with the parents.

“A lot of these kids that did not do well, they end up repeating first grade,” George said. “So before that, I scare the parents into understanding that if they don’t do anything at home and they aren’t involved in their child’s academic success, then their child might have to repeat and no parent wants that.”

Educators like George and Baumgartner will continue to advocate for high-quality, accessible pre-K programs in Texas. Visit the links below to learn more about the importance of early childhood education.

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Petroleum engineering professional, temporarily unemployed

Paula Inman: Lifelong Learner — Job Hunter — Energy Professional

As a Texas A&M graduate in petroleum engineering, oil and gas was the foundation on which Paula Inman built her career. With more than two decades in the industry, Inman has seen the ups and downs of the oil and gas industry reflected in her own professional path. Her most recent down started after she was laid off by BP in August 2015, then laid off again by Hart Crowser in November 2016. After being laid off twice in 15 months, Inman entered her job search a bit weary, but still determined.

Inman focused her search in the oil and gas field, but also expanded out to other engineering-driven industries in an attempt to expand her possibilities. But nearly two years into her search, she was scammed by an overseas opportunity that nearly drained her severance from BP. “I was begging. I was in the dumps. I was like, ‘Okay, God, what do you want me to do and how am I supposed to overcome this and continue to look for a job?’” Inman said. 

Despite the scam, Inman pressed on and was referred to WorkFaith Connection through a friend volunteering with the Christian-centered organization. The mission of the organization is to encourage, educate, and equip disadvantaged job seekers with the skills and connections they need in order to gain employment. 

“I was distraught, but luckily they got me in and I was able to do an orientation class,” Inman said. “I thought, ‘I have a resume already, this shouldn’t be a problem.’ But I went in with the attitude, ‘Okay, I’ve got to take whatever I can from this organization.’” 

With resume building, practicing interviews, and professional coaching throughout the process, Inman feels she was able to receive the support she needed following the hurt she felt from the scam. Over a four-month period with the organization, Inman applied to “hundreds of jobs” and had five interviews that went on to second interviews, but none stuck, until she was able to find her current job as an engineering advisor with Occidental Petroleum Corporation, an international oil and gas exploration and production company headquartered in Houston.

“I found out I got the job through a voicemail. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was total elation,” Inman said. “The excitement of, ‘Oh my God, I’m not a loser anymore.’ But throughout that whole process, WorkFaith never stopped praying for me and supporting me.” 

Even with strong experience in a healthy job market, people like Inman can still find themselves facing extended periods of unemployment in our region. Visit the links below to learn more about unemployment in the Houston area.

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