Leslie Chanthaphasouk, LAO director and founder,
talked to VOA about how her Laotian American Organization came into being. It
all first started when three students of Lao descent at the University of
California at Los Angeles met as members of a Thai association in 2007. They
were all quite surprised to find someone with the same background, and from
then on formed a strong relationships based on their common Laotian identity, leading
to the beginning of a small Laotian American community at UCLA. They would meet
and talk about their Lao heritage, asking each other questions about the Lao
language and culture, their refugee experience, the Secret War in Laos, and
Laotian communities in America.
With organizations such as the Smakom Thai or Thai Association, the Association of Hmong Students, the United Khmer Students, and the Vietnamese Student Union highly visible and active on the UCLA campus, Leslie and her friends felt like their Lao-American presence was invisible and without a voice. That prompted the need for a forum to discuss the social, political, and cultural issues that are unique to the Laotian-American experience, and the subsequent creation of the Laotian American Organization (LAO) at UCLA in May 2008.
Even though Leslie was born and raised in Orange County, California, she spoke Lao very well and managed to speak in Lao throughout our interview. Leslie explained to us of how proud she was of her heritage and her roots. She was saddened and surprised to find that a small number of people knew where her parents’ home country was. “There are many people who know where Vietnam and Cambodia are, but do not know where Laos is nor who the Lao people are,” she said.
Leslie tries very hard to networking with other Laotian American organizations throughout the United States to help promote the under-served and under-represented Laotian community. For this reason, LAO brought the Refugee Nations, the live theatre performing arts group under Ova Saopheng of TeAda bases in Los Angeles, California, to perform at UCLA for the very first time in the past week. “The Refugee Nations will help educate the general public about the struggle, pain, hardship and the livelihood of the Laotian American community,” explained Leslie.
A senior at UCLA, Leslie is majoring in International Development Studies and Asian-American Studies. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in June 2010, Leslie says she will continue her graduate study in Education. Her ultimate goal is to help the Southeast Asian community to move forward toward something bigger than their previous generations. “I plan on pursuing a Masters in Education and working in higher education administration, utilizing education as a means of serving community needs. My ultimate goal is to increase educational and leadership opportunities for the Southeast Asian community, with a special focus on the Laotian community,” Leslie explained.
Listen to audio files for more details.