Friday, June 23, 2017

Paw La La - 2017 Curtis Scholar

Paw La La arrived in North Carolina when she was seven, unable to speak English and worried about her far-flung family, many of whom had precarious futures. She had never left the Thai refugee camp where she was born, and she struggled to make sense of her new American culture, especially the social and educational expectations for a first grader at Frank Porter Graham Elementary.
Paw’s full name means “unique miracle flower” and in her adopted community, she mirrors that image in much of what she does. Late in May, Paw received a phone call that seemed like a miracle-- a representative from the organization Global Citizen notifying her that she is one of six American winners of the 2017 Curtis Scholarship. The year-long mentorship will send her to South Africa for ten days this summer, to a major rock concert in Central Park, NYC in September, as well as provide frequent opportunities to engage with the other Curtis Scholars and to build her skills and awareness as a human rights activist. Although her parents speak little English, they understand that they have given permission for Paw to explore the world. She smiles when she says, “My father just says, ‘Present yourself well. Behave.’”
At Carrboro High School, where Paw just completed her freshman year, she has already developed a powerful presence as a leader and creative thinker who is committed to connecting the racial and ethnic groups in a very diverse but sometimes segregated high school community. Paw speaks proudly of CHS, “It’s an amazing school. There are so many great relationships.”
What she doesn’t say is that she’s already been instrumental in bridge-building herself.  Her AVID teacher, Melissa Zemon, says that Paw “is always considering how to improve the lives of others… Her long-term plan is to provide additional safe havens for Burmese refugees. Paw wants to create a stronger bond between the Carrboro High student body and the newcomers and English as a Second Language students.” With that goal in mind, she and several AVID classmates planned and hosted a breakfast for students in the Newcomers class this year, and they intend to replicate and expand with similar initiatives next year.
As a student, Paw can be both relentless and voracious. “I want to be really open-minded,” she says. When she reflects on possible career plans, such as international public health, journalism, public policy, she understands that the road to college and graduate school will bring challenges. “I don’t give up easily. Even when I have it hard, I just try and see what I need to do to succeed.”
Matt Cone, who recommended Paw for the Curtis Scholarship, is a Carrboro High social studies teacher and a fervent advocate for the young woman and her role in the school community. Although he has not yet taught Paw in a class, he selected her as one of a small group of students to travel to a documentary film festival in Missouri last fall. Beforehand, he gave the participants ideas for books to read in preparation for the festival. “Whereas most of her peers treated my suggestions as suggestions,” Cone says, “Paw was dogged in tracking down this work.  Whether I was exposing the students to lectures about Black Lives Matter or articles about healthcare in rural settings, Paw was determined to soak this material up…On our drive to the airport in St. Louis, I asked Paw what she took away from the film festival. She turned to me and said, ‘I became brave!’”
The notion that attending a film festival made Paw brave is ironic, listening to her describe the frequent drills in Thailand when she and others in the refugee camp had to hide in the jungle for long periods. Memories of those early years now feel like “fading dreams,” but she loves going to the farmland at Transplanting Traditions outside Carrboro, where she can sit in a bamboo hut on the property because it allows her to connect to her childhood again. Melissa Zemon says, “Paw's childhood experiences are her anchor and her wings all in one.”
Mostly she looks to the future, and as she prepares for her trip to South Africa, she eagerly follows the daily Curtis Scholar updates and links from Global Citizen; the weeklong citizen action challenge in June, #StandwithRefugees, could not be a more perfect fit for this young refugee “miracle flower.” Nelson Mandela’s book Long Walk to Freedom is at the top of her reading list, with many others to finish before her travels begin. So much information, so many calls to expand her activist horizons.
“I look forward to growing a lot,” Paw says.