Adjusting to college life at UCLA can be difficult, but the United Khmer Students at UCLA (UKS) association made the adjustment easier for Buna Peong, a first-year UKS intern. UKS is a student-run organization dedicated to fostering a positive and safe environment for Khmer students and for individuals interested in learning more about Khmer culture.

As an intern, Peong supports the different components of UKS by working with the board to ensure that programs run smoothly. He played a large role in planning the recent UKS Alumni dinner, an annual event where current students are able to connect and build relationships with alumni.

The lack of representation for the Khmer community in the United States in addition to the small population of Khmer students at UCLA  makes UKS’ existence even more significant and necessary within the campus population. The small, but tight-knit, community holds general meetings that teach members about Khmer culture to help them navigate the cultural gaps that have arisen from a lack of equitable community resources, resulting in low rates of Cambodian Americans pursuing higher education.  

“I feel like they do a really good job at keeping the culture alive in the club because when I got in, every meeting surrounds a component of the Cambodian culture and they understand the community conditions,” Peong shares.

The general meetings dive into a variety of topics that ranges from food to collaborations with other student organizations, such as  joint forums with Thai Student Association at UCLA (ThaiSA) to compare similarities in culture, and the Asian Pacific Coalition (APC) to teach students about intergenerational trauma.

For Buna, joining UKS was more than just about finding a community on campus. It’s also about getting in touch with his roots, a journey that began the summer before he started college, when he went to visit Cambodia.

Prior to his visit to Cambodia, Peong didn’t understand why so many Cambodians were dropping out of school and joining gangs, attributing their decisions as personal choices rather than the consequence of social barriers and lack of effective government legislation. Now, at UCLA, Peong wishes to be more involved in his community, to learn more about his culture, and to share his knowledge of the Khmer language with other members of the club.

Outside of the club, members of UKS have an opportunity to engage with the larger Cambodian community. Through KORE (Khmer Outreach, Retention & Education), a program started by UKS, students have the opportunity to address the low rate of Khmer youth graduating from high school and subsequently, the lower rates of Khmer people in higher education. KORE volunteers partner with high school students from Long Beach to form critical mentorships that encourage both at-risk and excelling Khmer students to graduate high school and consider pursuing higher education. The culmination of the program is the KORE’s College Tour, an annual event where high school students are bused to UCLA  to participate in UKS workshops that provide students with tips on the college application process.

Currently, the club is working on “អនិច្ចា : Limbo”, their 22nd Annual Culture Night to celebrate traditional Khmer culture and the broad Cambodian community. The show aims to showcase the complex immigration experience of Ponleak and more broadly, the experience of Cambodian Americans as they navigate America, and touches upon contemporary themes like deportation and detention.

The show will have two showings: the first at the UCLA Northwest Auditorium on Saturday, April 6th from 6pm-9pm and the second at the Ernest Borgnine Theater in Long Beach on Sunday, April 28th from 6pm-9pm.


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