When Son Do was a child in South Vietnam, he wanted to be an electrical engineer. It was every kid's dream. It promised financial rewards and social status. School was easy for him. Sometimes, he helped his classmates with their homework.
Today Do, 48, doesn't work with hardware or software; he deals with what you might call "heartware." As a multilingual liaison (MLL), one of 10 in the Burlington School District, Do works closely with English Language Learner (ELL) teachers to help the city's non-English-speaking students and their families navigate American schools. They enable parents to participate in their children's education in the same way that native-born parents do.
Do moved to Vermont in 1994 after graduating from the private, Christian Nyack College in New York. Originally from South Vietnam, he was among the hundreds of thousands of "boat people" who fled the country after the North Vietnamese army captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, in 1975. En route to the Philippines, he vowed to become a man of God if he and his family survived the boat trip. In Burlington, Vietnamese immigrants call him Muc Su (pronounced mook sue), meaning pastor.
Now, Do spends his days advising Vietnamese parents on how to deal with their teenagers, reminding families to attend school activities and keeping tabs on who is or isn't doing well in school. A familiar figure in Burlington's schools who likes to stop and banter in the hallways, he also runs Math Night, a study session for Vietnamese students.
Coming from different cultures, Vietnamese parents and Burlington teachers have different assumptions about school, Do says. Families expect teachers to be the main instructors, while American teachers expect parents to be involved. Because the liaisons come from the community they support, they can connect to the parents and explain the differences, says Eric Kaufmann, a preschool teacher who has a Vietnamese student in his class at the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler.
"He has what I need in terms of providing the family with the support to be successful in school," Kaufmann says of Do. "When we tell him what we need, he can represent us."
Heidi Brown agrees. An ELL teacher at J.J. Flynn Elementary School, she says liaisons such as Do are "really to support me in the connection with the home. Without them, we wouldn't be able to understand the parents' goal for the child."
Most of the families that Do and other MLLs support have children in the English-language program. But the relationships often continue even after the children are fluent.
Liaison coordinator Nijaza Semic notes that about 500 students are enrolled in the Burlington ELL program. In all, the school-based liaisons support the families of some 900 Burlington students and collectively speak at least 10 other languages, including Burmese, Karen, Kirundi, Maay Maay, Nepali and Somali. By necessity, the liaisons are literate in both English and their native language.
The group is a mix of men and women. Two are Burlington High School graduates. Some had teaching experience before taking the liaison job. All of them want to help the communities they support. And all of them, Semic points out, are respected and well connected within those communities.
New liaisons undergo a year of training to familiarize themselves with the school system. They learn to treat as confidential all information revealed during interpretation sessions. They also learn from professionals how to broach subjects such as mental health, harassment and bullying.
On the issue of mental health, Do acknowledges, "It's so hard for our community to understand. In Vietnam, 'mental' means crazy."
Just as the liaisons are expected to help everyone in need regardless of religious or ethnic affiliation, the families are expected to treat their liaisons with respect. "By being professional, on time, serious, doing what she promised to the families," Semic recalls, one young female Somali interpreter was able to overcome skepticism.
Only the Burlington and Winooski school districts have ELL populations large enough to warrant hiring a team of liaisons. (The Chittenden Central Supervisory Union has one Nepali liaison. Winooski employs five individuals it calls "home-school liaisons.") Funding for these positions comes from a mix of sources, including federal Refugee School Impact Program grants.
In some districts, ELL teachers function as interpreters. Other districts hire interpreters per diem from the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program or local universities.
In addition to school and parent liaising, Do and his colleagues also provide other forms of support services that on-call interpreters cannot. If a child isn't picked up after school, his or her teacher will ask a liaison to call the parents. If a student is ill and can't attend classes, the parents will ask their liaison to let the school know. The liaisons also give cultural presentations to educate schools about the different communities of the school population.
At the start of the new school year, the liaisons help families translate school memos and complete household income surveys and emergency contact forms. Parents often wonder why they have to submit the same forms every year, says Mohamed Muktar, who's been a liaison for the Somali and Somali Bantu communities for three years.
"They say, 'We've already given you our family name, date of birth, everything. Why do you keep filling out this application form?'" he recalls. "We have to explain and give them more details: 'In case your address has changed. In case one of your children becomes sick. If somebody moved in or moved out,'" Muktar says. "We have to explain why this system is better."
Do skates through the paperwork because he's been a liaison since 2000 and can rattle off the history and circumstances of the families he supports. One of them is 67-year-old Soi Dang, who's the sole caretaker of her three grandchildren because their parents work out of state. Do has worked with Dang's family for so long that he knows it might be difficult for her to get around, and so he goes to her home.
As Do sits in Dang's kitchen on a recent visit, she watches him methodically make his way through three sets of multicolored forms. Her face is creased and she remains silent except to tell a reporter she isn't worried.
"He helps me with everything," she says of Do. "Not just me but a lot of Vietnamese people. He also helps my three grandchildren. Everything I need, he's always there to help me."
Though it's been more than 30 years since Vietnamese refugees began arriving in Vermont in the late 1970s, not all Vietnamese parents — or grandparents — understand the school system. The reason: They're not proficient in English.
"They struggle because they don't have time to go to school to learn the language. They have to work hard. They want to give back to their children, [they want them to] have a better life," says Do. "I feel very sad. They live here for 20 years. They don't know how to fill up the forms."
The MLLs often go the extra mile for the families they support. But when Do applied to be a liaison, he didn't imagine he'd be helping families with visa applications in his spare time. "They expect me to do everything," he says.
But he doesn't complain. Since he represents the school district, refusing to help would "reflect badly" on the schools, Do reasons. His efforts also help strengthen community relations. And, as the pastor of the Vietnamese Alliance Church, Do's calling is to help those in need, he says.
It's not just parents who sometimes need assistance. On the first day of the new school year, liaison Aline N. Mukiza had to explain to a 6-year-old, newly arrived from Burundi, that he couldn't bring his breakfast home to share with his mother and sister.
Also born in Burundi, Mukiza has been the liaison for Kirundi-, Swahili- and Kinyarwanda-speaking families for six years. She describes her job as that of a "cultural broker."
"These families have gone through different wars, hard struggles, hardships," says Mukiza, a University of Vermont grad. Teachers, she observes, "want to treat all students the same. But, as liaisons, it's our job to advocate and tell them that we're different."
In his early days as a liaison, Do says, there were many misunderstandings among the school, parents, and the Department for Children and Families. He recalls, for example, how the traditional Vietnamese practice of coining — a coin is applied to the skin to produce light bruising as a remedy for a cold or fever — was misidentified as abuse. These days, schools consult him first about any concerns.
When he first started out, some parents accused Do of colluding with the school authorities and the DCF to take their children away. He remembers telling them, "'I just come to translate for you. We don't take sides. ... We try to help your kid. We try to help your family.'
"Now they understand my position," he says.
In recent years, Do notes that his role has evolved to that of a bridge between parents and their children, which his newer MLL colleagues already find themselves doing. When the children of immigrants know English, they become the household's informal interpreter and assume authority over their parents.
"When you translate paperwork for the parent, you control the family," Do says. "The kids become the center of the family, not the parents."
This shift in family dynamics is exaggerated when the children are no longer proficient in their native language, don't have any attachment to their parents' country of origin and have different career aspirations from what their parents had expected of them. Do sometimes tells Vietnamese parents that other fields besides engineering and medicine are worth pursuing.
"The parents use the past and apply it to today. The kids don't want to listen to those stories, and the parents keep bringing them up," Do says with a chuckle. Hence, he also mediates between the generations. These days, "I'm going to call Muc Su" is a threat some parents use to get their kids to listen to them.
But Do doesn't resent his extracurricular efforts. "We want to help our community and our schools," he says. "We don't want to be labeled a burden on our society."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Culture Corps"