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Kristen Cyr
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Woman who came to U.S. to build better
life for son now graduating with him

May 16, 2014

Viengxay Louangvixa Viengxay Louangvixa

In 2000, Viengxay Louangvixa of Woonsocket almost missed her flight from Laos to the United States. The last passenger left in the terminal, she said she didn't want to go, even though her family had secured a visa for her. Her 14-year-old son, Somsanouk, clung to a concrete pole at the gate, not letting his grandmother take him away. But, she said, at the last moment, something spoke to her.

"I knew I had to go," she said. "I knew I needed to get to the United States, and to get a good education to help me and my son. Then, I could bring him with me."

Her son joined her 10 years later, and now they will make another journey together as they both march in commencement exercises at the Community College of Rhode Island. At age 53, Louangvixa has earned her associate degree in General Studies, and will graduate alongside Somsanouk, who is 27.

"I'm very proud of my associate degree," said Louangvixa, who first came to the college six years ago to take ESL classes at the Liston Campus in Providence and was the first person in her family to go to college. "For me, it's like more than a doctorate degree. CCRI is the Ivy League of my life."

Many would have been daunted by Louangvixa's path, which was by no means easy. In addition to having to leave her son and home country behind to forge a new life in America, she came up against some considerable obstacles when it came to pursuing her dream of going to school. She said that there was much contention among her family about her dream. "They thought I was crazy," she said, noting that the disagreements drove her to a women's shelter in Woonsocket.

But it was in Woonsocket, at Thundermist Health Center, where Louangvixa met a social worker who would give her the encouragement she needed to begin at CCRI. The social worker was an alumna of the college and told her she should go there, she said, and so Louangvixa got on the bus to journey to the Providence campus.

"I didn't know anything. I'm embarrassed to say this, but maybe it will be a good lesson for other people. They were talking about [class] credits, and I didn't know what they meant! I only knew about credit cards," she said. "But then I learned about credits; I got a very good counselor, I picked classes. Everyone at CCRI is so friendly."

At the Providence campus, she met Dr. Walter Crocker and became involved with his Cultural Awareness Day events, representing Laos and speaking about her culture along with her son. Crocker also encouraged her to take up swimming to help deal with some of the stress she was experiencing, and Louangvixa was up for the challenge even though she was terrified of water; her husband drowned back in Laos, she explained.

"But I talked to the coaches there at the facility [at the Flanagan Campus] in Lincoln, and now I swim. I'm addicted to the water, but it's a healthy addiction," she said.

With help from a supportive and successful sister and brother, Louangvixa was eventually able to get on her feet, and now lives in Woonsocket with her son. She lets him have the car, she said, so she takes the bus to class each day at the Flanagan Campus, where she began taking classes because it is a shorter distance to travel than to Providence.

"He's a very good student," she said of her son, who has a natural talent for visual arts and has studied art at the college, majoring in graphic arts and earning a place in the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.

Other than her wishes to build a better life for her and her son, Louangvixa has a larger mission that drives her, even when she has to go through difficult periods. She said that she wanted to carry the message to her fellow Laotian community in Rhode Island that education is important. She has encouraged her fellow immigrants to enroll in the college, and has even assisted some family members with enrollment.

She added that those who come here from Laos are typically taking low-paying factory jobs instead of continuing their education. "I want my community to make education a priority," she said. "I want everyone in Laos and the United States to know about CCRI. All of my professors and friends here have helped me succeed."

Her relationship with her community is also what fills the hours where Louangvixa is not in the classroom or with her son. When someone in her community needs to go to the hospital, she joins them to provide interpreting services – she speaks Laotian, Thai, French, as well as a little Japanese, Russian and Spanish. "I like to talk to people," she said.

In her time at the college, she has explored her passion for people academically, taking classes in social work. She said she hopes to work professionally as a social worker to help others like her, and to encourage her community to better themselves through education – not just through social work, but hopefully, she said, one day through a radio talk show. She wants to share some of the wisdom that she's learned while getting her degree, but also some of the wisdom that's inherent to pursuing a dream against all odds.

"I encourage myself all the time, 'You are good, you are strong,'" she said. "Sometimes suffering can be a vitamin for your soul. But you can't let the suffering conquer your heart."

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Last Updated: 8/25/16