What psychology major Jasmine Nguyen ’17 (Hanoi, Vietnam) most appreciates about Macalester is how devoted the college is to supporting students doing community projects. In Nguyen’s case, this meant she got to pursue a project close to her heart.

Last summer, Nguyen created —with help from Macalester’s Action Fund and a Phillips Foundation scholarship—the Parents Engagement and Network Program (PEN), designed to help St. Paul’s immigrant and refugee parents support their daughters as they move through higher education.

Nguyen first became interested in this issue when she volunteered with Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE), a St. Paul nonprofit aimed at empowering immigrant and refugee women and girls. She noticed that parents never attended WISE events, and when she asked the girls about that, she discovered there were “many, many barriers preventing parents from being engaged.”

That resonated strongly with Nguyen, whose own parents don’t speak English and often have trouble understanding her American college experience. “Even though they support me, they can only do it to a certain extent,” she says.

So last summer, working closely with WISE staff, Nguyen surveyed the parents of girls whom the organization worked with. The results? Most parents didn’t feel confident in supporting their daughters, largely due to language and cultural barriers. So Nguyen devised the program to help meet the parents’ specific needs.

Each week, a roundtable discussion took place among 10 parents, with Nguyen as moderator. Local experts led discussions, with volunteer interpreters translating into the multitude of languages spoken by the Hmong, Karenni, Liberian, Nigerian, and Somali parents. Passing a stone around the table, each parent asked questions and shared their perspective as the group discussed topics ranging from college applications to financial aid to the importance of extracurricular activities in American schools.

However, Nguyen soon “realized that would not be enough,“ she says, because compounding parents’ struggles to overcome language and cultural barriers was the fact that their daughters were often ashamed of their lack of English and immigrant backgrounds. So she decided to integrate a digital storytelling and oral history component into the program, hoping it would give the girls a deeper appreciation of their parents’ backgrounds and struggles. She had the young women ask their parents about their origins and their stories, and together each family shot a short film.

The films were screened at an end-of-summer celebration, to which participants brought home-cooked meals from their cultures to share. “I still remember how sincere the parents were when they thanked me, and how they said that they wanted the program to keep going, and they wanted to invite their friends to come to it,” Nguyen says. “That’s what has made me keep going.”

October 31 2016

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