University Cambodian students reach out to youth

The group kicked off the mentorship program at the New Year celebration.

Justin Horwath

Atop the stretching hills of Hampton farm country in southern Minnesota, a Buddhist temple seems a little out of place.

But the tall, spired structure drew more than 1,000 members of the Cambodian community for a New Year celebration Saturday, where members of a University student group met with Cambodian high school students to guide them toward the future.

University students in the Cambodian Students Association of Minnesota met with the students and members of the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota for a mentorship program the University group plans on implementing next year.

Event coordinator of the student association Sam Tan said the meeting at the New Year celebration was “just kind of like a kickoff event” for the CSAM-UCAM Mentorship Program.

Association members played traditional Cambodian games and socialized with students as a precursor to the program they hope will help Cambodian youth through their high school years and eventually guide them into a college career.

“Our goal is just to help out individual students in their pursuit Ö because a lot of Cambodian high school students don’t even know what FAFSA is,” the political science senior said of the student loan form.

He said next year his group will work with UCAM by tutoring high school students, helping them find financial aid or even just going to the movies.

Yorn Yan, director of UCAM, a nonprofit organization that provides services for Cambodians in Minnesota, said the organization sometimes doesn’t have the capacity to follow through with the high school students they work with.

He said CSAM will play a critical role in the program that serves about 360 youths per year.

“This program is to use the skill, experience and ability of CSAM to help a Cambodian kid in high school to move to college,” he said. “We don’t want Cambodian students to go to work right away without thinking about higher education.”

Yan, author of “New Americans, New Promise: A Guide to the Refugee Journey in America,” a book about the transition from a refugee camp to American culture, said the graduation rate among the 1,000 to 2,000 Cambodian high school students in the metro area is low because many Cambodian families struggle to assimilate into American culture.

This can be due to language barriers or ongoing effects of the Khmer Rouge Cambodian genocide during the mid-1970s.

“Those kids’ behavior is affected by their parents,” he said. “Among (the survivors) some of them Ö had no educational experience in America Ö they have no way to help their children.”

President of the CSAM Vuth Chhunn, a first-generation Cambodian American born in a refugee camp in Thailand, said one of the inspirations of the program was the low graduation rate of Cambodian students in his graduating high school class at John Marshall High School. He said five out of the 15 Cambodian students received a diploma.

Chhunn said he sees that situation echoing in other Minnesota high schools.

“The Cambodian community lacks a role model,” he said. “They need a mentor or program to help them get a head start and motivate them to do school work.”

While taking a break from activities at the celebration, Washington Middle School eighth grader Soaily Pin said the few Cambodians who attend her school are close-knit, and a mentorship program would help build a sense of a community.

“It makes me proud of who I am,” she said. “The whole idea of the thing sounds fun.”