Nikum Pon

For many young people growing up in marginalized communities, it can be difficult to see futures filled with opportunity.

Nikum Pon (PhD '13) dreams of changing that.

Before his dream came to life, however, Pon had to escape one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. Born in Cambodia during Pol Pot's rule and a genocide in which more than a million Cambodians died, Pon fled with his family to a refugee camp in Thailand.

His family spent two years in the camp before a Lutheran church in Minnesota sponsored Pon's family to emigrate to the United States. While life in a new country offered new possibilities, poverty and limited job opportunities compounded by the scars of tragedy made for a difficult transition.

Yet Pon became one of the first in his family to attend and graduate from college, earning his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Washington. After receiving his master’s degree in Seattle Pacific University, he went to the UW College of Education for his PhD in educational psychology.

Now Pon is working to make a difference in the lives of young people who, like he did, are growing up in marginalized communities. As the coordinator for equity, engagement and data in the Bellevue School District's Department of Equity, he works to strengthen and culturally integrate equity throughout the school system.

Pon conducts research with other district departments and school-side leaders to help enrich the educational experiences of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural student populations. Their efforts focus on supporting racial equity in three areas: academic success, college/career readiness and positive/productive life.

“One of the accomplishments with our collective impact team called Eastside Pathways is the creation of our district-and city-wide family and community engagements framework and plan that is based on extensive research and equitable practices,” Pon said.

In the first few years since the launch of Eastside Pathways, it has grown the number of community partners and created initiatives related to school readiness, summer and extended learning, school attendance, college and career readiness, and community engagement for cultural integration among others. 

Pon credits the College with preparing him to understand and critically analyze school systems and to conduct qualitative, quantitative and conceptual research, synthesizing a large amount of information and making sense of that data.

"This helps me to be very effective and efficient in my current, and confidently, future careers to find adaptive solutions and culturally integrative strategies toward closing the achievement gap," he said. "Aside from acquiring these skill sets, most importantly, the relationships that I’ve built during my tenure as a student were invaluable.”

Pon's passion for social justice has guided him in his career, and he has an even bigger dream that he hopes to achieve in the years to come.

“I would love to one day create elite schools for the most marginalized students both here locally and overseas in third world countries," Pon said. "I would love to teach and mentor students at the university level until I’m 90 years old.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications