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Empowering Leaders Among Asian-American Youth

Paul Van Mai is Chair of the annual Asian American Youth Leadership Conference (AAYLC), which brings together high school students from a wide array of Asian-American groups. Through workshops, career fairs and other activities, conference participants acquire leadership skills and are exposed to career guidance and opportunities. This year’s conference, scheduled May 1 at Portland Community College Sylvania Campus, will bring together more than 400 students from high schools in the Portland metro area.

“There is a prevailing notion that there are no disadvantaged Asian students,” says Paul. “The truth of the matter is that many Asian students come from refugee and first-generation immigrant families. These students struggle to overcome language, cultural and prejudice barriers in order to excel in school and become more active members of their communities.”

Since taking on the role of chair at AAYLC in 2003, Paul has helped grow the conference through new programs and offerings. In an interview with Colors of Influence, Paul Van Mai talks about the intent of the conference, and benefits to youth and families.

As a student leader in college, what was your experience like?

How did you get involved with AAYLC?

I was the first keynote speaker for the event in 1992, and I helped emcee the event in 1993. I left it for almost a decade, because I was focusing on my college education and start my career.

A funny thing happened in 2003. I used to often go to tradeshows for my company. I had the same flight with the founder Paul Duong. We got to talking about the event, and he brought me back on.

I really believe that what we’re doing is making a difference. About 1/3 of the planning team is made up of kids who went through the program many years ago.

We collect feedback forms at the end of every conference. From the feedback we get, we’re able to develop new programs, like the college fair. Some kids wrote about how the conference only exposes them to colleges in Washington and Oregon. So what do we do? We organized a college fair that now has 50 booths. We have colleges from Canada, the East Coast and throughout the West Coast.

This year, we’re offering “Career Fair” to bring together 20 different companies in health care, finance, business, high tech, nonprofits and government. These companies will come with info on summer internships – paid or unpaid – a chance for kids to be exposed to a particular career. A lot of kids think they want to be a doctor, for example, and they realize later on that it’s not for them.

What community needs does the conference seek to address?

Asian-American kids are typically not known to be leaders. When I was growing up, we didn’t have such a conference. My mainstream peers didn’t expect me to be a leader. The expectation was that I would become an engineer, a doctor, an accountant – something like that. It wasn’t until I started going to PCC that I learned of my potential to be a leader. I remember my own experience in college, where I spent two to three years taking classes I didn’t really need because I didn’t know what I wanted to be.

A lot of us in the planning team feel strongly about making an impact on students while they’re still in high school. We believe that conference helps them make better decisions about college.

In your view, what are some of the most common misconceptions about Asian-American youth?

Our youth are seen as being in two different extremes. One view is that they’re in gangs, and the other is that they are nerds: not a lot of in-between. The conference hopes to break these stereotypes. There are a lot of kids who excel in different areas. They are doing well in fields like politics and the business world, and they need to be recognized.

“Cultural Identity” is one of the workshops we offer. We have a wide diversity of students coming to the conference. We stress the importance of being proud of their culture and heritage. We know a lot of kids who struggle with identity. We help instill pride in culture, and at the same time they can blend in and make an impact.

We have a mix of U.S. born and first-generation immigrants who came to the States at a young age. We even have some international students who participate. Chinese and Vietnamese kids represent 40% of participants.

What successes are you most proud of?

We’re really proud of the Student Ambassadors program. We used to have the challenge of reaching out to kids. Our volunteers on the planning team don’t always have the time to go to high school campuses.

We worked with the school counselors to identify student ambassadors from each school to help get the word out about the conference. We empower these student ambassadors to use whatever medium they’re comfortable with to bring other kids to the event: text message, MySpace. In exchange for their help, we offered to waive the students’ registration fee for the conference, and recognize them on the website and in the conference program.

This is the fourth year we’re doing the Student Ambassadors. Being a Student Ambassador is now seen as a status thing. We have ambassadors in about 1/3 of the schools that participate. Not only are ambassadors promoting the conference in their school and among their friends, they also help us a lot on the day of the conference.

In the early years, we were fully dependent on the City of Portland and other sponsors. Today, we’re about 40% self-sustaining. Conference programs like the College Fair and Career Fair are helping the conference generate revenue. The magazine idea came about so we can sell advertising space to colleges, local businesses and individuals.

Why do you choose to devote your community work to youth leadership?

There isn’t enough time put into programs that help our youth. Many of us are focused on what’s happening in the present, but our future depends a lot on our young people. Who’s going to be the voice of the Asian-American community 10 or 20 years from now? It’s important to instill in these kids leadership skills and pride in their culture.

Colors of Influence Spring 2009

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"(Asian-American) youth are seen as being in two different extremes. One view is that they’re in gangs, and the other is that they are nerds: not a lot of in-between."

"A lot of us in the planning team feel strongly about making an impact on students while they’re still in high school. We believe that conference helps them make better decisions about college."

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