Finding Her Voice

When Summer Le turned 18, she and her parents knew it was time to leave her homeland of Vietnam to pursue the education she deserved and the future she wanted. She left her mother, father and two younger brothers to arrive in Southern California, where she knew only one person — an older cousin.

“He told me Santa Monica College was the best school for transferring,” she says of her cousin, who had studied at SMC before continuing his education at UCLA.

Journeying from a nation ruled by a single party to one where free speech is enshrined in the First Amendment necessitated a period of adjustment for Summer. “Vietnam is really traditional, and it’s kind of a closed-minded country,” she explains. “So freedom of speech wasn’t a concept familiar to me. Everything is under government control. In class, I didn’t want to say anything because, if I said something wrong, they would judge me or my grade would go down. That’s actually what happens in Vietnam.”

Voices and Choices

At SMC, however, she noticed how comfortable many of her peers were with classroom discussions, and how outspoken and active student leaders were. “That was something totally new to me, and I was intrigued,” she recalls.

It was a challenge at first, but Summer soon started making her own voice and views heard. “When time came for discussion in my English 1 class, I wanted to say something because we were talking about an issue I cared about,” she says. While some students might consider raising their hand an obligation, Summer’s knowledge of how speech is treated in her native country made it an act of courage. Gratification swelled within her as classmates not only listened but also engaged with her in further exchanges of ideas.

But if Summer ever lacked confidence in speaking, she didn’t show it, says Lydia Casillas, SMC counselor for international students. The two first met when Summer delivered a presentation about her homeland before nearly 50 students at the International Student Forum (ISF), a club for which Casillas serves as advisor.

“She knew what she wanted to convey,” Lydia recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘wow, this is a new student and she’s already up there.’ She was really dynamic and captured everyone’s attention.”

Political Growth

Summer became increasingly active in ISF after the group’s annual fall trip to Northern California to visit college campuses, including the University of California, Berkeley, where Summer hopes to transfer to continue her studies in economics. Other members soon encouraged Summer to run for the position of publicist. She managed ISF’s social media presence so diligently that the group’s president asked her to serve as vice president. In that role, her responsibilities included organizing the next Northern California tour, the club’s most important annual project.

“Because the trip is in the fall, a lot of new students participated,” Summer says. “As international students, we’re all lost when we first come here. There are language barriers and cultural differences. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to introduce them to a lot of resources at SMC.”

“Summer took care of the budget and all the paperwork,” Lydia adds. “She also presented the proposal to the Associated Students — SMC’s student government — and contacted hotels and bus companies to find the best rates.”

Now confident in her voice and growing leadership skills, Summer became ISF president in spring 2019, and then became active in the Associated Students as director of student advocacy. She serves as the Associated Students’ representative on SMC’s District Planning and Advisory Council, addressing issues related to facilities, budget and technology at SMC.

Summer is concerned with national politics as well. “We don’t get to vote in Vietnam,” she notes. “It’s amazing here that you get to decide who’s going to be the next president. I have been trying to bring the U.S. presidential candidates to SMC, because not a lot of people participate in voting.”

So far, candidate schedules have proved an obstacle, but Summer is not giving up. “I’ll try again next semester,” she says.

Getting Involved

Summer similarly urges more students to make their voices heard by getting involved at SMC. “There’s nothing that should ever stop them from speaking out for themselves and for others,” she says. “It’s a protected right, so just do it. This is what makes SMC great, because the college is made up of a lot of people from different walks of life. You can get exposed to different cultures and perspectives, and learn about a lot of things.”

One thing Summer is anxious for people to learn about is the extent of resources available to students. “SMC offers a lot of benefits, and people should take advantage of them,” she notes, pointing to Open Education Resources (OER) as an example. “OER enables professors to give us links so we can access textbooks for free,” she says. “It’s such an amazing program that it should be well-known and expanded to more courses.”

Summer hopes to eventually work at the Federal Reserve Bank. But even as educational and professional opportunities beckon, she says: “I wish I could stay at SMC forever. I love this school. All the professors and administrators are really supportive. Student voices are truly heard and appreciated here.”

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