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Validating My Seat at the Table

“We as students, and people of marginalized communities, belong at the table.”

The idea of belonging is something I’ve struggled with for years. From my lived experiences, growing up as an Asian American and Filipino American low-income student often made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. But recently I was able to participate in a Student Voices Session at the U.S. Department of Education with Secretary John King, Jr. – and it helped me validate myself, and begin the process of understanding that I do belong.

During the session I joined six other students for a panel discussion, where we pair shared and dialogued around our experiences with federal financial aid. We also uplifted our personal narratives as minority students across racial, ethnic, class identities and more. Many drew on ideas of familiarity and of community in accessing resources to pay for college, whether it was through on-campus clubs, local libraries, or families.

Most shared about the importance of supporting underserved communities in particular are oftentimes low-income or the first person in their family to attend college, and thus need support in understanding how to apply for or gain access to federal financial aid.

I found myself reflecting on my own experiences very much while in the room. As an Asian American, I shared about how approximately 1 in 3 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are limited English proficient, and that AAPI communities need language access to the FAFSA to comprehend what the financial aid process is.

Growing up as an Asian American, Filipino American and low-income student, it isn’t often that I sit with government officials to share about my struggles trying to do well academically, supporting myself financially, and making time to eat and sleep. It isn’t often to see people like me in federal and national government positions. It’s hard to remind myself that I belong, because no one I can relate to has been there before.

This is the impostor syndrome – that I don’t deserve to be somewhere – whether it’s college or meetings with government officials.

It’s important to remind myself, and ourselves, that we as students, and people of marginalized communities, belong at the table. I belong in the spaces I bring myself into – and being a part of the Student Voices Session affirmed this.

I felt the Department of Education’s commitment to my holistic success through this listening session. By making space for us at the table and listening to our experiences, ED creates opportunity to support many low-income students, student workers and family members pursuing higher education to support their communities. ED not only practiced listening to our needs, but also made space for self-empowerment to share my narrative because I – and other Filipino Americans, people of color and low-income students, belong at the table.

With my presence, I’ve already challenged the norms and that is a victory in itself. And, it’s one action in a process of normalizing the fact that yes, I, our narratives and communities, do belong here and anywhere we go in life.

Benedicto Llave is an Intergovernmental Affairs Intern at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which is housed within the Department of Education.