In honor of May being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Pacific Ties and Asian Pacific Coalition (APC) are teaming up to featuring Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Bruins. We’ll be posting one interview per day. If you’d like to share your story, fill out this form here.

Rita Phetmixay is a dual master’s student in Social Welfare and Asian American Studies. She will be graduating this June.

How do you identify?

Lao/Thai Isaan American womxn

How long have you been at UCLA?

3 years

Why did you choose UCLA?

I chose UCLA because I initially wanted to conduct research on higher education policies for Southeast Asian Americans, specifically Lao Americans. Although I did not follow through with this specific plan, I have been able to use other resources from the Asian American Studies Department and Asian American Studies Center at UCLA to help me document my family’s history through the making of my own documentary film titled “Phetmixay Means Fighter.”  I have used these filmmaking/critical thinking skills to talk about my community in a way that validates our existence–something that was never given to us in North Carolina. Overall, the community I have built at UCLA has helped me understand the power of my own story and have empowered me to continue upholding my strong Lao identity. It is interesting to see how everything at UCLA has come into fruition for me.

How do you think your identity affects your experiences at UCLA?

I feel that my Lao/Thai Isaan identity impacts how I navigate UCLA every day because I am one of only two Lao (Isaan) American folks that I know of at UCLA. At several points in my life,  I normalized being the “token” Lao American person in the room. However, I have come to my senses that that is not okay. Now that I am able to make this conclusion about my community’s struggle in advancing in higher education, I am able to become more attuned to what kind of structural barriers further marginalize Lao American students in the higher education pipeline and further build allyship amongst other groups on campus to spread awareness of how this issue is significant and to build my own awareness of how they may be similarly disenfranchised. This leads me to explain why I hold onto whatever community I am able to build. My struggle is their struggle and vice versa and I realized that we cannot liberate ourselves without understanding how our own minds have been historically colonized through various oppressive institutions and socializations. Being able to understand these concepts is such a privilege, so I would hope in the near future that other Lao American students can at least be given higher education opportunity and thrive.

Are you in any student groups on campus? What are some of your experiences?

I am one of the co-chairs for the API caucus at the Luskin School of Public Affairs. I am also  on the Masters of Social Welfare Department’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion committee (MSW DEI), AASGSA (Asian American Studies Graduate Student Association), and SEA CLEAR mentorship.

Recently, I have been very proud of being in my MSW cohort and honored to have met so many other powerful womxn of color who have been able to organize on an (higher education) institutional level. The experience of seeing how the DEI committee was formed has been impactful because I am able to not only offer my experiences as a Lao/Thai Isaan womxn, but dialogue and critique the institution with fellow scholar-activists in order to lessen the oppression for the next generations to come. Overall, I have gained insight on how I would be able to organize in other institutions and organizations. I have hope that the institution can change through people power. It has been a humbling journey to work with other womxn of color from all different backgrounds who also believe in the same core values of social justice. I am able to dialogue and learn about so many various elements of what it means to be impacted by oppressive systems. I have grown so much closer to them, and it has been one of my greatest rewards of being at UCLA.

What’s your favorite part of your culture(s)?

The food! I love laap, papaya salad, and sticky rice. There is a lot of labor that goes into Lao and Thai food, and to be able to eat my family’s food is very empowering. Eating such foods reminds me that I will not assimilate to mainstream western food culture. *laughs*

What’s your greatest challenge right now?

One of my greatest challenges this past year was taking a geographic information systems course on community mapping. It was one of the hardest classes I’ve had to take and learn in 10 weeks. It was a testament of how well I was able to put a 25-minute presentation together with 4 maps together and an explanation for each map. Now, I am feeling okay with where I’m at. Society says once you graduate you need a job and to be able to make payments towards bills or else you’re reduced to an undeserving citizen of society. Being at UCLA  for 3 years, I have gained a lot of critical thinking skills, and I use that as a platform to market myself. Time will come and the opportunities will come. I will make my own way and make my own mistakes. I am feeling at ease and content with where I am.

What’s your favorite memory of UCLA?

The relationships I’ve been able to build in both programs have been my favorite. There are so many strong womxn of color. I have never been able to dialogue in such a critical level than when I’m with them. It gives me hope that there are like-minded individuals with very different experiences that can always teach me something about myself. I will never forget all the intimate connections I was able to foster through struggle; working long hours on papers or thesis and building relationships for life.

What is on your UCLA or LA bucket list?

I wanted to do the undie run so I might do it this quarter. In LA, I also want to visit the Getty and the Latinx museum in Long Beach, and go to a concert, especially a Beyoncé concert.

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