Two Cultures, a Shared Success

08/03/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By SUSAN McMAHON

LOWELL- Laotian immigrant Douangmany Malavong-Warren arrived in Lowell in the middle of a snowstorm 20 years ago.

Trudging through the snow, she had only one question for the people who crossed her path where is the university?

With few English skills, she made it to UMass Lowell, where officials told her to begin in adult education, learning English, earning her GED, so she could apply to the school.

Now, she's a math teacher at Lowell High School, assigning heavy amounts of homework and pushing her students to work hard.

"I teach my students the way I was taught," she said. "I'm not going to lower the standards for you. You have to work to the standard."

It's a success story of the Southeast Asian resettlement to Massachusetts one that educators and researchers say is not uncommon.

But the story of the area's Southeast Asian community is one of both successes and challenge. It was a story traced yesterday at a UMass Lowell forum sponsored by the university's Council on Diversity and Pluralism, the Indochinese Refugee Foundation, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

"A seminar like this would help us to learn more about something we cannot find in the textbooks," said Lan Pho, director emeritus of the Council for Diversity and Pluralism. "It's life experience."

English skills, communications skills, the cultural clash, the generation gap all are issues faced by Southeast Asian parents and students as they make their way through the American education system.

Educators addressed those issues at the all-day forum, analyzing the past, present and future of the Southeast Asian resettlement in Massachusetts.

Much of the discussion focused on the panelists' experiences in the Lowell schools as students, as teachers, as administrators. Both Maura Ammendolia and Malavong-Warren were at the forefront of the wave of Southeast Asian immigrants, teaching the first English as a Second Language classes to the newcomers.

The school went from 193 Southeast Asian students, mainly Cambodian, to 438 from 1985 to 1988. The challenge of educating a group of students who often needed English skills as well as core content often proved difficult.

"We were creating as we went," Ammendolia said. "At one time, I had a science class with no books, no materials, and 38 students who were very, very eager to learn."

Some students mainly those who had extensive literacy in their native language developed English skills quickly. Others took more time.

But now, educators are seeing a different generation of Southeast Asian student one that has grown up in America, but still struggles to hold on to their native culture.

Phala Chea, director of Lowell's Parent Information Center, recently completed her doctoral dissertation on Cambodian youth. She found that students want to be accepted in the new culture, portraying themselves as both Cambodians and Americans.

"If students are able to keep their culture and their language, they are able to do better in schools," Chea said.

Such recommendations, presented to the audience of educators and social workers, were the key to continuing to find what works as the Southeast Asian community continues to integrate, Pho said.

"We are looking for what would be helpful with them in settling in this area," she said. "We are kind of the extended eyes and ears of the community."

The seminar also included the announcement of a new endowment fund at UMass Lowell, sponsored by the Indochinese Refugee Foundation, which will help provide resources for research and education focusing on refugees and immigrants.

"It's a small incentive, but it's needed because no other resources are there to encourage scholars to continue to examine the integration process," said Hai Pho, UMass Lowell professor emeritus and former program coordinator for the foundation.