Diversity & Inclusion
January 21, 2020

Increasing access to higher education for APIA students

Since 2003, APIA Scholars has worked to fulfill its vision to cultivate academic, personal, and professional success for Asian and Pacific Islander American students.

Noel Harmon smiles for the camera.
Noel Harmon is the president and executive director of APIA Scholars.
Viewpoints image features black-and-white headshot of Noel Harmon of APIA Scholars.
Diversity & Inclusion
January 21, 2020

Increasing access to higher education for APIA students

Since 2003, APIA Scholars has worked to fulfill its vision to cultivate academic, personal, and professional success for Asian and Pacific Islander American students.

Our monthly Viewpoints series invites guest authors from outside of Wells Fargo to share an important perspective related to their work. Today, we welcome Noel Harmon, president and executive director of APIA Scholars.

“Where are you from?” is a question I’ve heard all my life. I was adopted as a baby from Seoul, Korea, by a white couple from Iowa. And as a young girl growing up in Des Moines, I loathed the question and usually answered it by saying “EYE-OH-WAH” very dramatically. I adjusted my answer in college and early adulthood to explain that I was adopted and gave a knowing look as if to say, “So, I’m not really Asian.” 

The struggle to understand my identity continues to this day, but I now find this question a genuine opportunity to share the complexity of my identity. The world sees an Asian woman when they see me, and though I wasn’t raised in an Asian culture, I do strongly identify with and understand how my race and ethnicity impacts nearly all aspects of life. I embrace it, but also have to constantly navigate it.

I now lead APIA Scholars, an organization dedicated to serving the Asian community, which encompasses 40-plus different ethnic groups and more than 300 languages spoken. The Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) community is diverse and dynamic — it is not one homogenous group. With rapid population growth heading toward 50 million by 2060 — along with a wide spectrum of cultures, histories, and socioeconomic statuses — there is a crucial need to address the many educational disparities and the gap in opportunity for the extraordinarily diverse community that makes up “Asian.”

The APIA Scholars logo, which includes the words, “Educate. Elevate. Empower.”

Originally founded in 2003 as the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, we have grown to understand our impact at APIA Scholars as both a source of support for students and a leading force in advancing our community, which is really an amalgamation of many different and unique communities.

Serving as the nation's largest nonprofit provider of college scholarships for the APIA community for more than 15 years, APIA Scholars employs a comprehensive approach to elevate the student population through mentoring services, leadership training, and of course, financial aid. To accomplish this goal, we rely on community-driven partners like Wells Fargo, which has provided more than $8 million to fund 2,100 scholarships for our APIA students — like Lily Sooklal — since 2006.

Our mission is to make a difference in the lives of APIA students through the resources and services we provide. Our vision is to see that all members of the APIA community have access to higher education and resources that cultivate their academic, personal, and professional success regardless of their ethnicity, national origin, or financial means. With 7,000 scholarship recipients and counting, we strive to ensure success for this growing network of incredible students — many of whom are first generation — as they enter college and beyond.

One way we help students succeed is through our engagement programs. Our scholarships help grant access for our students to the education and environments needed in today’s economy; the services we provide ensure transition from classroom to career. The awards allow them to take their first steps, and the APIA Scholars development opportunities help ensure they not only walk across the stage, but they do so with bright futures ahead.

Four college-age students stand together.
In addition to distributing more than $150 million in scholarships, APIA Scholars provides mentoring services and leadership training to help students transition from the classroom to the workforce.
Photo: APIA Scholars

A first encounter that many of our applicants and recipients experience is our Jump Start College Tour. Developed in collaboration with Wells Fargo, this full-day event provides tools and resources for students and their families across a variety of topics including college planning, leadership training, financial education, and professional development. With support from our incredible campus partners, we are able to host college access programs at Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions and other institutions with high populations of Asian and Pacific Islander American students with financial need. Through Jump Start, we can reach underserved students with important information to help increase access to higher education and accelerate their success long term.

This past year, we were able to bring the Jump Start College Tour to more than 1,000 students and families at California State University, East Bay; Georgia State University; University of Texas, Dallas; and University of California, Irvine. Continuing our work with Wells Fargo, we plan to do the same for another cohort this year. 

As we kick off the new year, please consider this our hearty invitation to learn more about our work, provide your support, share our opportunities, and join the ever-growing network at APIA Scholars. Together, we can continue to make college dreams come true for this generation of APIA students and future ones to come.