Patrick Woo-Ching has long known of the educational problems facing the Pacific Islander community.
Born and raised in the U.S. territory of American Samoa, Woo-Ching always struggled in school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. He persevered and overcame those limitations, earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Washington School of Social Work, then a Master's of Public Administration from the University of San Francisco. He also served for 12 years in the U.S. Army.
Along the way, Woo-Ching observed the roadblocks and obstacles the PI community faced in Washington schools. And despite what he was able to accomplish, Woo-Ching knew this problem was simply too grave for most to overcome.
"When I was in the military, I knew about the issues," Woo-Ching said. "But I knew there were people working to address the problem.
"In graduate school, I noticed it was still there. That's when I decided to get involved personally."
In 2015, Woo-Ching founded Voices of Pacific Island Nations (VOPIN), headquartered just west of Seattle, to end the academic crisis among PI students in Washington schools. Educational inequity has affected PI students dating back to at least the 1970s, according to various education-based organizations and government agencies. The data shows that PI students are:
- More likely to come from families below the poverty line
- Not meeting state-determined academic proficiency standards, in substantial numbers
- Disciplined at a disproportionately higher rate
- Among the highest in chronic absenteeism and dropout rates among minority demographics
It's a complex crisis that requires complex solutions, Woo-Ching said.
"The language barrier and cultural dissimilation are part of it," he said. "It's a socioeconomic issue, too."
To begin fixing the problem, VOPIN has been providing direct tutoring and mentoring services at nearby Bremerton High School. Called Navigating Education, VOPIN has operated these services in the school since 2020. As of March 2023, the program had enrolled more than 80 students.
VOPIN's Navigating Education program offers PI students at Bremerton High School an environment of shared cultural identity and a sense of belonging, both of which Woo-Ching said are critical.
"A lot of our students share a common want for belonging," Woo-Ching said, "and that's part of our culture as Pacific Islanders. Being able to offer that to them is important — for our culture, but also because that's how we can make a difference in helping them academically."
The academic challenges VOPIN is addressing at Bremerton High School are serious. For example, PI students at the school have a 57 percent failure rate in math. But Woo-Ching is committed to helping his community overcome those educational obstacles, just like he did himself.
"Education is the equalizer in our society," he said. "That's why we are so focused on getting our students back on track — so that they succeed in life."
VOPIN's programs and services are divided into three departments: Family Services, Arts and Culture, and Youth and Young Adult Services. The latter is the only department currently active for VOPIN due to funding limitations.
But as the nonprofit grows, Woo-Ching has plans for a robust and comprehensive set of offerings for the entire PI community.
"The long-term vision is to open a community center," he said, noting big plans for Family Services and Arts and Culture. "The arts are very important to Pacific Islanders because for so many generations that's how history was passed down.
"But we need the support of the community. It's time to take ownership of the problem and do something about it."
You can help VOPIN in its mission to inspire the Pacific Islander community and eradicate the educational inequities it faces. VOPIN is one of Spave's preferred nonprofit partners, and we're honored to support it.
You can contribute to VOPIN through the Spave app. Set up automatic, recurring donations to the nonprofit, or make a one-time contribution. Your charity will help VOPIN as it grows and expands its impact on the young lives of Pacific Islanders in Washington.
VOPIN is also planning a luau fundraiser for August. Stay tuned to VOPIN's website for more details.