Refugee, student founds

by Stacy Jo

Although “mentoring” is not a commonly used term in her native Southeast Asian culture, Ilean Her’s experiences as a Laotian refugee spurred a strong connection to the concept behind the word.
When she was 7 years old, Her and her family were forced from their home in Laos as political refugees.
Although Her said the transition was more difficult for her family than for herself because of her young age, her experience as a refugee led her to become the founder of a mentoring organization to enhance the lives of refugee youth.
“I find it very sad that there’s this huge disconnection between adults and youth,” Her said.
Her is not alone in her efforts to make mentoring play a key role in the lives of young refugees in the United States.
In the absence of substantial quality mentoring programs targeted at refugee students, the University’s Refugee Studies Center is attempting to fill the void that many refugees face as new students not only to the University, but also to the country.
The center hosted the first of this year’s monthly round-table discussions titled “Mentoring Refugee Youth for Success” on Wednesday.
By connecting University researchers to the affairs of refugee communities and giving the communities a stronger research base for their work, the center’s staff hopes to create more productive refugee mentoring programs.
Refugees are people who are forced to flee to another country out of fear of persecution or execution, based on unpopular political or religious views. Commonly stripped of all material possessions, refugees do not have the option of returning to their home country.
Because the University’s refugee student population is expected to increase over the next few years, Masami Suga, program associate for the Refugee Studies Center, said University officials must examine how they can prepare for and best receive these students.
Although University students can expect to see an increasing number of refugees from Africa, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, Suga said the most rapidly growing refugee population at the University is Southeast Asian.
According to the Minnesota Refugee Committee, Minnesota claimed 76,500 Southeast Asian refugees as of January 1998.
Suga attributes this large number to Southeast Asians’ migration to the United States during the mid 1970s. Because they began migrating to the states before many other groups, they have had a chance to create a sizable community within this country.
“Minnesota is a lot more culturally diverse than we think it is,” Suga said. “We can expect to see this diversifying trend continue.”
Frank Snowden, director of the President’s Distinguished Faculty Mentoring Program, guides faculty members in mentoring students of various cultures, including refugees.
The concept of mentoring is ideally a positive prospect, however, mentors and students can encounter many roadblocks, Snowden said. Disparities in interest and knowledge can make the process difficult.
However, Snowden said these barriers can be overcome if students are focused on what they want from a mentoring relationship.
“I would like students to be assertive about what they want and need,” Snowden said.