April 08, 2019

On March 7, Century College hosted “The Freedom to Tell our Stories,” a panel discussion led by Green Card Voices. The non-profit organization based out of Minnesota is dedicated to empowering immigrants to share their personal narratives.

The speakers included Century College students Gissela Reyes, Yai B. Gbeanquoi-W, Wendy St Felix, and Iya Xiong. They came to the U.S. from Peru, Liberia, Haiti, and Laos, respectively. Green Card Voices Founder and Executive Director Tea Rozman Clark, a Slovenian immigrant, also spoke about her experiences as an immigrant and the work her organization does.

The panel discussion was inspired by the Green Card Youth Voices exhibit, which has traveled to more than 35 locations across Minnesota, and was displayed in Century College’s West Campus throughout March.

“The Green Card Voices exhibit reminds us that each and every one of our neighbors has a story to share,” said President Angelia Millender in her opening remarks. “We are proud to host and celebrate this organization and these diverse stories on our campus.”

The Power of Storytelling

The stated mission of Green Card Voices is to foster tolerance and establish a better understanding between immigrant and non-immigrant populations. The best way to do that, Rozman-Clark believes, is by giving immigrants the means to share their stories first-hand.

“We were tired of journalists other people telling our stories through a political policy lens,” said Rozman-Clark. “We use the mode of authentic first-person storytelling to inspire empathy and introduce ourselves to our new neighbors.”

Citing a well-known statistic, Rozman-Clark noted that a story is approximately 22 times more memorable than statistics. Vice President of Student Affairs Pakou Yang, who moderated the event, shares Rozman-Clark’s belief in the importance of stories.

“As an immigrant and daughter of immigrants, I know the power of storytelling as an avenue to keep cultures alive and thriving” said Yang. “Stories touch our hearts and create a stronger community based on understanding and respect.”

Meaningful Connections

The panelists shared stories that outlined the experiences faced in their homelands and in the U.S. Even the small details – such as the troubles they had coping with Minnesota’s very cold weather – created a meaningful connection with the audience.

Wendy St. Felix was born in Canada. He later moved to Haiti where he lived with his mother for 13 years, and in 2015, immigrated to the United States. He plans to transfer to St. Thomas or Hamline, eventually becoming a pilot in the U.S. Airforce, which he calls “the greatest in the world.”

Gisella Reyes moved to the U.S. in 2001 to pursue “opportunity and the American Dream.” She plans to transfer to the University of Wisconsin River Falls to earn her Health and Physical Education Teaching Degree. She also loves to spread the “fun and beauty” of Peruvian dance at festivals around the Twin Cities.

Yai Gbeanquoi-W simply dreamed of an education. But she was not allowed by her father to attend school in Liberia, since academics were considered to be for males only. To attend school, she left her home at the age of 10 to become a housekeeper for her aunt. As an adult, she moved to Minnesota in 2002 seeking asylum after the assassination of her brother. She is now studying Medical Assisting at Century College.

Iya Xiong, a Laotian immigrant, is now attending the pre-nursing program at Century College. She feels as if she receives more respect here than she did in her home country. Her status as a woman, and the revered place elders had in society, made her hesitant to speak to teachers.

“I felt no one would want to listen me,” said Xiong.

Finding Freedom at Century College

Although the discussion was titled “The Freedom to Tell Our Stories”, not all of the panelists immediately felt empowered to tell their stories, even after entering a country where free speech is an inalienable right.

 “As an immigrant, sometimes we’re afraid to talk because this is not our country,” said Reyes. “We feel like we can’t say anything or we’ll get in trouble.

A common thread for all of the panelists, though, is that they found the freedom to speak up at Century College.

“When I got to Century College I could ask the teacher a question, or the teacher would come to me and ask how I was doing,” said Xiong. “It made me feel I had the right to speak.”

St. Felix, struggling with the English language, found the skills and confidence to tell his story. Gbeanquoi-W, meanwhile, is enjoying the freedom of being able to pursue her degree at Century College.

“If my father were living today, I think he’d be very happy for me,” said Gbeanquoi-W.

In one disturbing incident when Reyes came to the U.S., she was told, “shut up, you don’t have the right to talk.” But Century College showed her otherwise.

Reyes praised her Sociology instructor, Susannah Dolance, who told her she had the right to speak. She reflected upon the support she received from the Multicultural Center and TRIO Student Support Services, which she called a home.

Creating this kind of inclusive environment is a key component of Century College’s mission.

“At Century College, immigrants play a vital role on this campus,” said President Millender in her opening remarks. “Our foreign-born students are part of the diverse fabric of Century College, and an integral part of our community.”