I began with a short story of a teacher who wanted to teach his students a lesson in courage and wanted them to cross a river. No one answered the call. Except for one young girl, who swam through the dangerous currents and crocodiles to the other side. Everyone cheered her on. When she reached the other side, she said: “I just want to know one thing. Who pushed me in the river!?”
I like that story because it tells us about our hidden potential, our ability to surprise ourselves, and our need for a little push from our friends, every now and then. Sometimes, courage doesn’t come immediately from within ourselves, but the people around us who see our potential and want us to succeed.
I wanted them to feel hope and excitement that education can improve their life, the lives of their families, and the lives of our community.
I wanted to help the families in Fresno understand the reasonable question: Who have we been, and what does it mean to be Lao? It is almost 40 years since we all began to arrive in the United States as refugees. I wanted to let them know how important it was that we also remember the Tai Dam, Mien, Khmu, Lahu, Lisu, Lue, and others who also come from Laos. No one should be forgotten. Because to me, everyone is important. Everyone can have a voice.
In Laos, we often said in the old days that “only the lucky ones can go to schools.” I often thought of this while attending school in Minnesota. I felt lucky, but over time I have also come to believe that those of us who are lucky also have a responsibility. One part of that responsibility is to pass the best of what we learn on to others. Knowledge is a treasure that is best when it is shared.
When I was a student in college, there were a few moments I was really afraid. I wondered if I had the skills to graduate. I didn’t have many role models I could turn to. My college was just learning what to do with all of the refugees from Southeast Asia and their families. As I mentioned here on the Twin Cities Daily Planet, my advisor even suggested I should drop out. I saw many of my friends drop out, and they never came back. I hated those feelings of doubt. But I wanted to succeed and graduate.
In 2011, I conducted my research with Lao college students on holistic identity development. In my research, I found that many young Lao today still struggled with the issues of education as I did, and my brothers and sisters did. Like my family, they couldn’t turn to their parents for guidance because our parents had never had the opportunity or experience of going to college.
My closing advice was simple: Find your voice. Find your dream. Discover how many different ways you can connect your voice and your dreams with the dreams of your parents, your family, and our community. Do your research and find out what your interests are. I told the children and even the adults to seek out great mentors. To learn from our shared past and grow from it.
I was filled with wonder watching the youth as they stepped forward and told all of us their dreams that night after I spoke. They did it in Lao, occasionally Laoglish, but they were hungry to learn. I think we should take their dreams seriously and do what we can to help them reach everything they can imagine, anywhere in the world.