Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Project MotiVATe – Promoting Cultural, Social, and Academic Awareness

By Lee Duong
It is 8:25 p.m. on Wednesday at the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance second floor suite located on Garden Grove Blvd. Tonight is a workshop night in the light green and beige room where Project Motivate meets every week. The room is divided into two groups of fifteen of mentors, mentees, and volunteers.

The two groups anxiously listen and all eyes are on the guest speaker as he is to read a statement that the assigned groups are to either support or oppose. He states, “It is okay to legalize marijuana. Okay, you have a minute and a half to talk about it with your group.”

The groups hurriedly talk amongst one another trying to list reasons for their stand on the topic. All eyes are on the speaker from each group who bravely comes forward to voice his or her opinion to the rest.

“30 seconds!”

The room suddenly gets louder, as time is running out for the team members to come up with an answer that everyone agrees on.

“Time’s up! Who is the representative for the ‘for’ side?”

Everyone encourages Thomas who is donning a black messenger bag for he is the one who had the main ideas during the brainstorming. Thomas steps forward and explains, “It is already used for medicine. So, it can help with back problems and insomnia. It can also help with cancer patients. It is also a good stress reliever. If you legalize it, you can put a tax on it, so you make more money… with the already economic problems, you can help that go down.”

An applause fills the room, especially from Thomas’ team.

Now for the opposing side. Teresa, with a purple Volcom tee-shirt, confidently steps forward to face the side she is debating against. Without a doubt in her voice, she states, “It is already legal for those who need it, like cancer patients. But if we legalize it for everyone, it is going to get abused. It will lead to more death rates. They are going to take it all away so that people who have cancer and who really need it, they are going to suffer because of what YOU all choose.”

A wave of “Ohhhhhs” fill the room as the participants in the debate all clap for one another.

A mentee, Tim, from the side debating against the legalization of marijuana proudly exclaims, “Justin Beiber ain’t got nothing on us.”

The high school mentees in Project Motivate used this exercise as a means to promote debating skills along with becoming educated on the topic of substance abuse.

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Project Motivate first started as Camp for Youth in 1996, a program that focused on kids who were involved in gangs and other at risk youth and served to take them to camp. In 2000, Project Motivate was created to help kids year-round. Project Motivate is a mentoring program based in Garden Grove, California designed to help Vietnamese-American youth. About 40 percent of all Vietnamese-Americans reside in California. According to the Orange County Health Needs Assessment Special Report 2010, there were an estimated 158,476 Vietnamese living in Orange County in 2008. The most highly populated Vietnamese areas are in the cities of Garden Grove and Westminster, which boasts its own “Little Saigon.” Although there are a large number of Vietnamese-Americans in Orange County, there are no other free mentoring services to help these youth exposed to the troubles of the community.

There are currently 15 mentees, 9 mentors, 20 volunteers, two coordinators and two program directors in Project Motivate. The mentees range in age from 13 to 18 years old and attend high schools such as Garden Grove, La Quinta, Santiago, Westminster, Fountain Valley, and Bolsa Grande. The mentees are referred to the program through different outlets. Project Motivate has appeared in local newspapers and television shows which parents are usually tuned into. Some students are also referred to the program by the Garden Grove Unified School District counselors. Marina High School senior Thu Nghiem states, “My mom heard about the program on the radio. She asked me, ‘Do you want to go?’ and I said ‘Sure.’ I was open to something new.”

Hubert Nguyen, volunteer and coordinator, explains that the goal of PM is “to mentor these kids in a holistic approach. That means, we develop them academically, culturally, familially, and socially. With this holistic approach, we can make them into better kids.”

Academically, Project Motivate seeks to help the mentees by holding study halls for about an hour and a half where they can gain help from the mentors or volunteers. Thu remembers, “I used to not be into school. I thought I was too cool. I started realizing that trying hard isn’t bad. Study hall gave me time to focus on homework, where at home, I usually can’t focus.”

With academics, comes the “model minority” idea that many people have towards Asian-Americans. Thu tells me how she believes Vietnamese-Americans are perceived, “We are smart and hard-working.” However, some people are not aware of the community problems that may affect the youth. Vietnamese gangs have been growing in Southern California since the 1970’s, around the time that immigrants first starting coming from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon. A study explained in a Los Angeles Times article states that Vietnamese–American youth may join a gang simply because they are surrounded by them and their friends are in them. This is where Project Motivate comes in. Internal program director Scott Iseri says, “A lot of the times, people turn to gangs or those kind of friends because they don’t have that support. Having an older mentor, where most have gone to college, at least have that influence on them, can show them better alternatives to the decisions they may be making.”

Along with academics, Project Motivate stresses the importance of culture, which is intertwined with family. Thu explains the struggle between the parents and their children, “The kids are losing touch with their parents which makes them lose touch with their culture. The generation of parents that came over from Vietnam have a language barrier with their kids. They believe that the values in Vietnam still apply to here and the kids don’t really understand.” The 2000 Census reports that 45 percent of Vietnamese households in the United States were “linguistically isolated” and no adult spoke English very well. Because generational differences, such as the ones that Thu explained, may occur, a mentor’s role is to help avoid that language barrier. One of them is to keep in communication with the parents to inform them of what is going on in the mentee’s life that he/she may not feel comfortable telling their parents about. I overheard a conversation in the hallway when the mother of a mentee meets up with a mentor to discuss the current events of her daughter. The mother tells the mentor in Vietnamese, “Thank you, miss. You can call at anytime.” In this case, the mentor serves as the mediator between the mentee and their parent.

Another responsibility that mentors have along with maintaining the relationship with the parent may be trying to make the connection with the mentee, or “finding a point where they could go in and actually talk to the mentee, instead of just small talk, being relatable to the mentee,” as Hubert explains. Mentor Jenny Long who has two mentees admits, “It certainly was not easy at first because I had to build the trust with them, but after I was able to do that, I see them as a little brother and sister… the biggest challenge is being patient and persistent when it comes to seeing progress in our mentees. We have to remind ourselves of our little accomplishments every week because we can easily forget what a difference we are truly making.” But that change is rewarding. Hubert explains, “The hugest indicator of having a positive influence is their attitudes at study hall and monthly events. Over time, many of these mentees have become comfortable to the point where they are outspoken after being reserved for so long. As a result of being comfortable with the staff, the mentees are more open and willing to receive help whether it be mentoring or tutoring.”

In building communication with the parent and the mentee, Project Motivate also seeks to close the culture gap and language barrier by educating the mentees about their heritage. 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of a date that all Vietnamese-Americans will never forget. April 30, 1975 is the day when the South Vietnamese were defeated by the North Vietnamese communists. The month of April, known as Black April, is to commemorate the fall of Saigon. For the occasion, Julie Vo, external program director, showcased a poster describing the four ‘waves’ in which immigrants came from Vietnam, explained the difference between a refugee and an immigrant, and posed the question to the group of what their families had to leave behind to come to America. Some answers in the audience included: photos, family, education, friends, businesses, and comfort zone. Those in the room shared their stories whether it was their family or them directly who arrived here. The mentees were asked to bring in a picture of their family when they first came to the United States.

A mentee, Annie, shared her story. With a photograph in hand of her family in their house just before they left for the United States, she remembers her life back in Vietnam. Her parents were doing well for themselves by owning businesses. They were offered the opportunity to come to the United States. Her dad was hesitant in leaving what they had accomplished in Vietnam, but Annie explains, “He wanted us to come over here for our future.” Annie’s family came in the fourth wave, which is from 1990 to present day. For these Vietnamese-American immigrants, many left behind familiarity for bigger opportunities in the United States.

Because some of the mentees have immigrated from Vietnam in the recent years, Project Motivate hopes to help them adapt socially to their peers and surroundings. In the social realm, Hubert states that they try to make the kids “more proactive and outgoing.” For the 2008 elections, the mentees went to the Little Saigon community to ask questions to the residents such as “What issues are you worried about? Why do you want to vote?” For those kids who are more shy than others, this was an opportunity to come out of their shells to promote an important issue and also learn a bit of the culture because of the commonalities that they may share with those they interviewed.

The substance abuse awareness workshop was used as a social and educational tool for the mentees. The workshop is one of many that Project Motivate holds to educate the mentees on issues that may affect them. In maintaining the holistic approach, the workshops can range from ones dealing with financial aid, self-esteem and self-awareness, stress management, peer pressure, and cultural ones, such as the Black April workshop mentioned.

In hand with these community building events and workshops, Project Motivate holds monthly activities to give the program participants an opportunity to come together to get to know one another outside of their Garden Grove location. Past events have included karaoke night, barbeques, taking public transportation to the Dodger game, volunteering at a food bank, a scavenger hunt at the Getty Museum, and most currently, the Orange County AIDS Walk 2010. Some events may be strictly for fun, but in the case of the walk, can also serve a purpose to help towards good causes and educate the Asian-American community about such as HIV/AIDS awareness, which is a taboo topic among the community.

The weekly meetings and outside events bring the members of the group close to one another. Project Motivate is a second family to many. Scott says “It’s pretty small, so it’s intimate. Everyone is pretty close… It’s more like a group mentorship. Everybody helps everybody else out. Everybody kind of mentors everybody… Everybody is pretty young, and like-minded people that want to help out in the community. With that said, the number of volunteers is growing with those who want to help the program. Sarah Han, a dedicated volunteer who drives to Orange County just for Project Motivate states, “Once you start to know the people, that’s what makes you keep coming back.”

Project Motivate has won the 2009 Golden Wave Award sponsored by a Vietnamese newspaper, the Viet Tide, for their contributions to the community. Members from the community called and voted for a community organization that they thought has done a good job.

What holds for the future of Project Motivate? Scott hopes, “We want it to be bigger, to have a bigger name in the community. If it helps more people, it would be awesome.” Jenny is confident, “As long as we have a strong supporting staff, this program can handle any curve ball.”

Project Motivate at the Orange County AIDS Walk 2010

[Photo courtesy of Project Motivate’s Facebook fan page]

Reporting Notes:

  • 30 minute interview with Hubert Nguyen, volunteer and coordinator
  • 30 minute interview with Scott Iseri, internal program director
  • 30 minute interview with Thu Nghiem, mentee
  • 15 minute interview with Sarah Han, volunteer
  • E-mail interview with Jenny Long, mentor
  • Six 3 hour observations during Wednesday meetings
  • Participation in Orange County AIDS Walk 2010


  • Vietnamese Americans: Lessons in American History – An Interdisciplinary Curriculum and Resource Guide
  • Orange County Health Needs Assessment Special Report 2010
  • Los Angeles Times article – New Study Disputes Reasons Vietnamese Youths Join Gangs
  • Orange County Register article – These Immigrants Are Grateful
  • Project Motivate’s YouTube page
  • Project Motivate’s Facebook fan page
  • Journey from the Fall film

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