It’s October, so our thoughts are naturally on Halloween and scary things. As a kid, trick or treating meant we were usually bundled up in winter jackets, so no one saw our costumes. Dressing up like zombies, cannibals or vampires, we rarely saw someone dressed as traditional Lao heroes or the ghosts our parents frightened us with. I know someone who went as a politician one year, insisting that was the scariest of them all.
It sounds silly now, but in college there were a few moments I was really afraid. I wondered if I had what it took to graduate. I didn’t have many role models I could turn to. My college was still struggling to develop best practices to help Southeast Asian refugees. My advisor even told me I should drop out. I saw many of my peers drop out, never to come back. I hated those feelings of doubt. But I wanted to stick it out and see it through.
I once read the words of the philosopher Immanuel Kant who asked “What can I know? What ought I do? What may I hope?” These are questions we don’t often hear asked of refugee communities, but we should.
Today’s Lao students are making a lot of progress, but I’m frightened by barriers they still have. Some of the students I’ve talked to are the very first in their families to ever go to college. Many were afraid, and perhaps rightly so, that they’ll go into crippling debt. They expressed fears that they’ll be unable to find jobs that will let them take care of their aging parents. It’s a lot of pressure for them, and little seems set up to help them. But what can we do to help as a community? How do we create an approach that can consistently help our students, instead of using haphazard models that’s there one year, gone the next?
I don’t want our students’ success to be in spite of us. It should be because of us. They should feel there are people they can turn to with their questions.
Families and community organizers need to be more vocal about establishing and maintaining real programs to connect communities to our youth and their culture. We can’t afford to let them slip through the cracks because we couldn’t train counselors how to help students make effective education plans. With over 12,000 Lao, we could form a city the size of Worthington or Monticello. That’s a lot of potential. We can afford to invest in that.
We need to be more proactive creating mentors who support Lao students. Mentors who understand not just what Lao culture has been, but what it can be. There should be a regular infrastructure in place. One that matches our youth, and resources for those mentors to get training. We need approaches that allow them to understand what the youth are going through.
Our youth have to be taught to reach for the best in life. To not give up because things aren’t just handed to them, but to seek out things that have value even if you have to struggle to get it, such as an education. We need to be clear that good participation in our community means a good sense of civics. This includes helping each other not because we expect something but because it is the right thing to do. I would be very afraid for our community if our students never learn that lesson.
Halloween is often a time we tell each other ghost stories. But I also hope we start to tell each other the stories that will really shape our community. To really give our kids something they want to pass on to the next generation.