A Laotian-owned French bakery in Connecticut has started a college scholarship for students taking Asian American studies and pursuing careers in public school education.
Khamla Vorasane opened BouNom Bakery in Avon last February with her sister, Chan Graham. It’s named after their late parents, Boulieng and Nom.
“What can we do to continue this conversation when the media no longer picks up about hate crimes towards Asians? How do we keep that dialogue going? One thing we realized is, it’s a matter of education,” Vorasane told NBC Asian America.
Each year for the next three years, two University of Connecticut students will receive $1,000 each to support their studies. They’ll also get the opportunity to work as interns at the school’s Asian and Asian American Studies Institute.
Vorasane, who came to the U.S. with her family as refugees, said she has faced racist comments and microaggressions from a young age.
“How many times, when you were in school or you went to a party, did someone say, ‘Me love you long time?’ We just laughed it off,” she said. “It starts that way, right? Small microaggressions that become true racism and prejudice that people really think is true.”
The scholarship is also designed to help create a pipeline of teachers who can teach Asian American studies. Earlier this year, the Connecticut General Assembly proposed a bill that would require K-12 public schools to offer elective courses in Asian Pacific American studies.
“Not only do we want to help teachers in schools now who have classrooms … but we also want to educate the next generation of educators,” said Jason Chang, director of UConn’s Asian and Asian American Studies Institute and a proponent of the bill. “This became a bigger, long-term vision.”
The Nom & Boulieng Vorasane Scholarship will incentivize students pursuing careers in public school education to learn more about Asian American history, which most public school social studies curriculum in the U.S. lack.
“When you don’t teach actual history, people will fill in those gaps with common stereotypes,” Chang said.
The scholarship does not have a minimum GPA requirement, which Chang said is designed to reach more students. “If we just used a typical kind of GPA metric for deservingness, we would miss, say, first-generation students who maybe didn’t have as strong of a GPA, but nevertheless came with a really passionate drive to help their communities,” he said.
It’s not Vorasane’s first time raising money for the community amid the rise of anti-Asian hate. In March, the bakery organized a fundraiser to support the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and UConn’s Asian and Asian American Studies department, and raised $4,000 in one day. This success inspired her to start the scholarship.
The bakery is supporting the first six scholarships, but is also encouraging donations to expand the program.
Vorasane and her family came to the United States from Laos as political refugees after the war. She said her father had been imprisoned, and after he escaped, the family crossed the Mekong River to Thailand in the middle of the night.
They later re-settled in Texas, where they were the only Laotian family in the area. Her father, who was college-educated and spoke three languages, worked in a car garage during the day and as a school janitor at night.
Vorasane’s bakery and this scholarship honor her parents’ heritage and struggle.
“A part of wanting to do the scholarship was making sure that people are aware of who Pacific Islanders and Asians are and how they are an integral part of building the United States,” she said.
CORRECTION (Dec. 15, 2021, 11:40 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated where Vorasane’s family originally lived. They lived in Laos, not Vietnam.