A group of local high school students — all recent immigrants from China — have traveled to Washington, D.C., and been nationally recognized for a video they made about their immigrant experiences.
The 12 students were among 200 groups and individuals from all 50 states who answered the White House’s call for videos on what it’s like being an Asian American or Pacific Islander. With about 11,000 online votes, their video titled “My Voice — Their Stories” put them among a handful of finalists honored as Champions of Change and invited to visit the nation’s capital.
The students are part of the Chinese Immigrant Student Leadership program, a new collaboration between the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center and Charlestown High School, funded in part by the Hyams Foundation.
The program is led by Chu Huang, a youth program associate at the neighborhood center, and Chikae Yamauchi, a math teacher in Charlestown High’s Chinese Sheltered English Instruction program for recent immigrants, which all the students are enrolled in.
Huang, who was born in China but moved to Boston’s Chinatown as a small child, speaks English and Cantonese. Yamauchi was born in Japan and grew up in the United States and China — she speaks English, Japanese, and Mandarin. The students in the program come from all over China and speak four different dialects, which sometimes makes it necessary for Huang and Yamauchi to explain a concept two or three times.
The program meets on Mondays and Wednesdays to help students better understand not just the English language but American culture, which can be very confusing for a newcomer. It deals with both issues particular to immigrant youth and universal high school concerns, such as bullying.
Huang found out about the video competition just before the deadline for submissions and brought it to Yamauchi, who was immediately enthusiastic. The two of them quickly went into action, guiding and structuring the project, but the content of the video — the struggles the students discuss — came from the students themselves.
“I’m coming in a from a community perspective, not really familiar with what they’re going through, still learning from them about their experience,” Huang said of the students. “But they were able to tell me, oh, these are some of the things that we have to deal with, that we’re struggling with.”
Huang and Yamauchi gave the students several small digital video recorders and set them to work, shooting all the interviews in a single day. Though the adults were enthusiastic, the students initially experienced some trepidation.
“When I just got a camera, I feel very afraid, instead of happy,” said Huan Chu Chen, 16, who lives in the South End. “My first thinking is, will everybody see this, and do they like it, or do they disagree with me or something like that?”
But Chen ultimately found the experience was positive. “Everybody worked so bravely to make this video, and we let other people know what we are doing and what we are struggling with for the new immigrant students,” he said.
Huang took the video she and the students had shot and quickly edited it together and submitted the completed video for the competition slightly past the deadline.
“We really did not even expect that we would get any sort of mention,” Yamauchi said. “But then we found out that we had made it into the semi-finalists.”
Those semi-finalists were posted on-line for public voting, and the students used their social networking skills to help spread the word about their video and encourage friends and family to vote for them. They secured 11,000 votes, and with them a place in the finals and a trip to Washington.
There was some disappointment because space limitations didn’t allow for all the students to participate in the White House tour or appear on stage to accept the award, but all 12 were able to go on the trip to Washington and visit sites including the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and various national monuments.
They said it was a meaningful experience to be at the ceremony and hear the stories of others who had similar struggles.
“It was so memorable,” said Xin Rong Zhou, 17, who lives in the South End. “We can hear everybody’s stories and experiences, and so we can share our story too.”
Though the students speak in the video of feeling isolated and insecure about their abilities to express themselves in English, Yamauchi said she has been impressed with how they have responded to all the attention the video has brought them.
“Every student has really surprised me and impressed me with how they’ve kind of stepped up,” Yamauchi said. “When they’re put on the spot and the reporter’s asking them questions, and Miss Chu and I are not anywhere close by, I can still hear them giving these wonderful, thoughtful responses. I’ve been actually moved to tears several times.”
And for their parents, many of whom work 12 – 14 hours a day, Yamauchi said, the video and the wide coverage it received in Chinese-language media have created a rare opportunity to see their children’s success and to express their pride.
At a meeting with parents before the trip to Washington, many of the parents thanked Yamauchi and Huang for giving the teens an opportunity to share their stories.
“The fact that we were able to involve the parents in this has really been a wonderful experience,” Yamauchi said.