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‘A chance to succeed’: On its 10th anniversary, Full Circle Project’s impact on APIDA students is clear

Hnou Lee, a counselor with Sacramento State's Full Circle Project and Educational Opportunity Program, speaks to Ethic Studies students on Feb. 23 about Full Circle Project, which is celebrating 10 years of helping Asian Pacific Islander Desi American students navigate college life. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Ten years ago during her Sacramento State student orientation, Hnou Lee received a message from a counselor representing an organization called the Full Circle Project (FCP). He encouraged her to join the new group, which had been created to support underserved students like herself.

Lee, a Hmong American, took the recruiter’s advice and never looked back. She earned her undergraduate degree and then her master’s, then started a career in higher education. Today, she is a counselor for Sac State’s FCP and Educational Opportunity Program.

The FCP was “transformative,” Lee said.

“It gave me a chance to succeed in life,” she said. “Without FCP, I’m not sure I would have been able to earn my degree and find my place in society.”

For a decade, FCP has helped Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) students navigate the educational, financial, and emotional rigors of University life.

On March 1, FCP will celebrate its history and successes with a public exhibit on the second floor of the University Library.

Funded by federal grants, FCP focuses on improving retention and graduation rates for APIDA and other underserved students. It offers economic and educational resources including scholarships, peer mentoring, career counseling, and academic advising.

Sacramento State student Hnou Lee, standing indoors, in front of a Full Circle Project logo on the wall, holding a Full Circle Project brochure
Sacramento State counselor Hnou Lee, who joined the Full Circle Project 10 years ago during the program's infancy, said its impact on her life has been "transformative." (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Graduation rates for APIDA students at Sac State are dramatically improving, thanks in part to FCP, director Timothy Fong said. In 2012, just 5% of API students at the University were graduating in four years, compared to 9% for the University overall. Since then, the API grad rate has climbed, reaching 24 percent last year compared to 26 percent for students overall.

Because about 20 percent of its students identify as APIDA, the U.S Department of Education  has designated Sac State as an Asian American Pacific Islander Serving Institution, which makes the University eligible for federal grants to support those students.

FCP relies on the federal government as its sole source of funding, but Fong said he and others are pushing for University financial backing as the program moves into its second decade. He said that gaining ongoing financial support from the University would eliminate FCP’s reliance on short-term grant funding.

“FCP has received more than $5 million in federal grants, is recognized as a ‘Model of Success’ by the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers University, and has been highlighted in academic books and scholarly reports,” Fong said. “It is now time to institutionalize FCP staff and programs” by obtaining ongoing University funding in support of Sac State students.

Lee, who was first in her family to attend a four-year college, said the program helped her develop her identity as a Hmong American and allowed her to forge lifetime friendships. FCP students move through their educational journey as a group, and get support from across campus to achieve their academic and life goals.

“When I came to Sac State, I was very shy and I wasn’t good at advocating for myself or asking for help,” Lee said. “Full Circle made it easy. They made sure I didn’t feel alone.”

As she pursued her degree, “it was great to be around other students who were Hmong and who had cultural pride,” she said.

After earning her bachelor of arts in Film Production from Sac State in 2016, Lee earned her master’s in Higher Education from Cal State Fullerton.

Now, as a counselor at FCP, she carries on the mission of serving students. Among other things, Lee recruits local high school students to the program.

“I tell them that FCP will help them with academics and leadership development, and give them a true sense of community,” she said. “I tell them that it’s a truly transformative college experience.”

In addition to FCP, the campus offers other initiatives to support APIDA students. On March 4, Sac State will host its annual Asian Pacific Islander Desi American College Day. The event, which promotes early awareness of college access and career preparation for students, will be held virtually from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The day will feature speeches, workshops, and other offerings designed to help APIDA students from kindergarten through high school, as well as college transfer students, prepare for eventual enrollment at Sac State and other universities. Registration for the event can be done online.

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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