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​Ammala Douangsavanh, marketing representative for the Neighborhood
Health Plan of Rhode Island, listens to fellow panelist Nam Pham, CEO
of the Vietnamese Initiative for Development in Dorchester, during a
discussion about the basic needs of immigrants. (Photo by Saadia Ahmad '14)

Needs of Southeast Asian Community Discussed During Conference at Providence College

When Vimala Phongsavanh ’08 was growing up in Rhode Island, Providence College seemed a natural choice for her education: It had a strong science program that pleased her parents, and it offered scholarships to students from Southeast Asia to make education more affordable.

Her decision to attend PC proved life-changing. Phongsavanh’s parents wanted her to become a doctor, but she fell in love with learning about the world, starting with her courses in PC’s Development of Western Civilization Program.   

“The professors at PC introduced me to philosophy and theology,” said Phongsavanh. “It opened my eyes to so many different things. I became really passionate about political science. I decided that I wanted to change the world.”

Today Phongsavanh is program director for youth and adult literacy with the Socio-Economic Development Center for Southeast Asians (SEDC-SEA), an organization founded in Providence in 1987 to serve the region’s Cambodian, Hmong, Lao, and Vietnamese communities.

She was coordinator of the organization’s first national leadership conference, SEARCH (Southeast Asians Restoring Community Hope), which brought more than 100 people, including several presenters from Washington, D.C., to PC’s Slavin Center ’64 Hall in December for a day of discussion about cultural awareness, health, education, advocacy, and basic needs.

At one session of the conference, three panelists and a moderator discussed issues facing immigrant communities, including cultural differences that can make misunderstandings possible. For example, as a sign of respect, Southeast Asian children are taught not to make direct eye contact with adults. But that same practice can seem disrespectful to adults from other cultures.

“I thought everybody went to a refugee camp”

When panelist Phitsamay S. Uy, now assistant professor of leadership in urban schooling at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, was a child, “I thought everybody went to a refugee camp,” she said. “I’d ask, ‘What camp did you go to? Did the U.N. food truck deliver to you, too?’ And people would say, ‘I went to Girl Scout camp.’”

Asked to relay a success story, Channavy Chhay, executive director of SEDC-SEA, asked the organization’s youngest members to stand. Among them was Stacey Phommatheth ’13 (Johnston, R.I.), who is studying biology at PC and hopes to attend medical school.

Phommatheth received an email from PC inviting her to attend leadership training through SEDC-SEA. She welcomed the opportunity because she felt she had become distant from the Laotian culture of her grandparents.

“My parents are very Americanized,” said Phommatheth. “I was raised in the American culture. I wanted to reconnect.”

Now, she hopes to work with SEDC-SEA after graduation.

PC was a natural choice to host the conference, Phongsavanh said. The organization works with PC’s Balfour Office for Multicultural Activities, and its membership includes two other alumni: Xong Yang ’06, a sociology major who is program director for social work at SEDC-SEA, and Ducha Hang ’03, a political science major who is a member of the SEDC-SEA board.

Hang is now director of first-year and exploratory programs at Salve Regina University and is studying for a Ph.D. in education at the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College. Her sister, Goldie Hang ’13 (Providence, R.I.), is a computer science major at PC.

“PC is so supportive and accommodating for Southeast Asian students from the local area,” Ducha Hang said. She said students are attracted by two academic scholarship programs: The Cunningham Scholarship, established in 1985, a full-tuition award for Southeast Asian students, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship, established in 1968 and available to students from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

“We went to PC,” said Phongsavanh. “PC has provided me with so many opportunities.”

 — Vicki-Ann Downing



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