My name is Latana Jennifer Thaviseth. I am a Lao American woman, the daughter of two Lao refugees who came here in the mid-to-late 1970s. My mom’s family was sponsored to Des Moines, Washington, a suburb south of Seattle, and it is where I was born and raised. I enjoy spending time with my family and being the daughter, sister, cousin and auntie that constantly brings up “controversial” topics. I am currently a PhD student in Higher Ed and Organizational Change at UCLA and also working full time.
I’m not sure of my mom’s exact journey out of Laos, but I know my dad fled through the Mekong River and the forest to get to Thailand. Both of my parents spent time in refugee camps in Thailand before being sponsored by Presbyterian churches. All of my mom’s family was sponsored to the same area, and while my dad’s family is mostly here[Seattle] as well, he has two sisters in France.
When I was growing up, I didn’t really know much about my parents’ experience - I only knew that I was Lao. My parents were both heavily involved in the Lao community so even though I grew up in a very white town, there would be ways my parents would connect me to my cousins who lived in Seattle and the broader Lao community. They didn’t actually talk to me about their refugee experiences until I was in college and I had to do a historical interview for an Asian American Studies class. I did my report on my dad, and that’s when I learned about his escape from Laos. I also learned about his involvement in pro-democracy movements for Laos after he arrived to the US. This interview allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of my own personal history within the larger historical framework. My mom doesn’t really talk too much about her experience so my knowledge of her story is much more fragmented.
There is a Lao community in south Seattle. Even though I grew up in the suburbs, I remember my mom taking me to Lao grocery store, the Khmer grocery store, the Vietnamese grocery store in Seattle. It was nice to be exposed to and have access to Southeast Asian culture even though I did not realize how important that was until I got older.
Really early on, I questioned my identity a lot, especially since I was going to school and living in a very white community. Through the years, I always made being Lao very apparent, but middle school was a pivotal time for me in terms of trying to understand my identity. We had this event called “Night of the Notables.” We got to choose important people in history to present on, and so I started looking up notable Asians. I found Chien-Shiung Wu, who was known as the “first lady of physic.” She had graduated from Berkeley, so from then on I kept telling myself I was going to go to U.C. Berkeley one day. The other person I chose was Aung San Suu Kyi, the political leader of Burma (now Myanmar). This experience prompted me to explore my Asian identity and also my Southeast Asian identity more.
Around the same time, my sister and I began to learn a dance for my grandmother’s birthday which was taught by my cousin-in-law, the late Pom Khampradith. Afterward it turned into something more. Pom started connecting us to other Lao teenagers and we all had an interest in dance. Together we created the Kinnaly Dance Troupe. We collaborated with the Lao Student Association (LSA) at the University of Washington to provide us with practices space and performed with LSA for their cultural nights. Through Pom’s network, we got to meet a lot of other Lao professionals and communities across the nation. I remember my first time meeting a Lao doctor and Lao PhDs and PhD students, and performing at the Lao History Symposium at Berkeley (I was so excited since it had been my dream school). I owe a lot my success to Pom, as I would not have even imagined that I could be where I am now without her planting those seeds very early on. I’m not as heavily involved with Kinnaly right now, but just being a part of it grounds me in the work that I do. I know that I will always have this connection to the Lao community and no matter where I go or where I’m at, it will always remind me to think about the importance of passing our culture onto the next generation.
In terms of the influence my parents had on me, both my parents were involved in the Lao and Southeast Asian community. My late father, Khamsene Thaviseth, was a community leader who provided support to the Southeast Asian community in Seattle. He was also involved in the Lao political space and he did things like help students who were protesting in Laos seek asylum in the U.S. My mom, Sengnouane Thaviseth, has been involved in the Lao Lue temple and the community as well. Growing up, we had a lot of people coming over asking for support with the challenges they were or their children were facing in the legal system. My parents would tell my sister and I to go into our rooms, but we could still hear and understand the conversations they were having. As I reflect back, I remember the different struggles that the Lao community was going through - gang violence, police brutality, racial discrimination, mental health, suicide just to name a few. My parents and family’s role in the community had a major impact in shaping who I am today and providing me with the confidence of being proud to be a Lao American womxn. I've listened to multiple stories of how people were not exposed to their culture while they were growing up, but I was very lucky to have the experiences I did; once I finished high school and went on to college, though I didn’t really know the history or the trauma that came with, I had a better understanding of my Lao identity and was connected to my community.
I think I have always been proud of being Lao. There may have been a time in elementary school when I was not, but for the most part, I was this kid who had a lot of attitude and feistiness, and so I was always putting my Lao identity out there.
One of the biggest highlights was being part of the Southeast Asian American Education Coalition (SEAeD) prior to leaving for graduate school. Being part of this group really connected me to other folks who wanted to fight for educational equity for Southeast Asian American students. We had the first UNITE (You and I Together for Education) Summit, an education summit for Southeast Asian students in Seattle, and over 200 people came - high school students, some middle school students, and teachers. We not only had workshops for the students, but also for the educators and other professionals as well.
This summit sparked the movement to have have a Southeast Asian American recruiter at UW (University of Washington) and being the first to hold this position is another highlight in my career. It was a huge honor, but there were also high expectations. I started two programs: Rising SEAs, a leadership conference for high school and middle school students, and SOAR, a recruitment event in the fall. After the first year however, the position was cut. There was a lot of conversations going on that used research and data to justify why they position was cut. By not being able to be a part of those questions/ or having the “knowledge” was one of the big reasons why I decided to go back to school and get my graduate degree in higher education. All those in positions of power had the language of the system, and so for me, I decided that I was going to go and learn that language and the system to be able to advocate for my community. (Update: The position has now been reinstated)
Also, being a part of the SEAAsterScholars has been a source of support in helping me continue to move forward in my doctoral program. I also think that we’re at the point where we’re looking for other SEAA scholars and rising scholars out there. We all have different experiences so being able to have the space to share that with people who you can connect with is very meaningful.
I am currently focusing on the trajectories of Southeast Asian American students in the community college system, the impact of the labor market, and the reasons these students continue to persist or not. There are other challenges that these students face that make it difficult for them to pursue a full-time academic schedule, such as the need to work, family obligations, and other things, and I just feel that these students’ experiences need to be highlighted. My focus is on community college students because there is often this disparity between community college and universities in terms of obstacles and resources. At the university level, they have all these systems of support for things like food access, mental health resources, and funding, but in the community college level, while some of these support measures may exist, these students are such high-need. It is critical to focus on these students and find better ways to support them. And again, we need to push for data disaggregation, especially when we’re looking at the AAPI population.
Southeast Asian American Education Coalition (SEAeD) works on educational advocacy. They follow some of the House bills and try to mobilize the Southeast Asian community politically, and they also do hold an educational summit every two years. SEAeD also provides internships and fellowships for students, as well as leadership opportunities for those interested in education.
The Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs is a state agency with an advisory board of 12 commissioners, appointed by the governor, to be a voice for Washington’s diverse Asian Pacific American communities.
Center for Lao Studies: Their mission is to advance knowledge and engagement in the field of Lao Studies through research, education and information sharing.
Sahtu Press’s mission is to publish and promote enduring contemporary Lao American literature and to create academic and grassroots learning opportunities.