It wasn't until Joanna Lu's class at Patrick Henry Elementary School undertook its Immigrant Project that the fifth-grade student learned how her father escaped from Vietnam.
"I was really excited to hear my father's story," Joanna said.
Her father, Michael Lu, told how he secretly fled to Malaysia and eventually Hawaii, where his sister helped him become an U.S. citizen.
"It was like he was reliving it as he told it to me," she said.
Leslie Young's fifth-graders at the school just finished an extensive three-month project on immigration, which included tracing family roots, interviewing immigrants, giving a presentation about a famous immigrant and researching immigration trends and legislation.
This is the third year Young's students have completed the Immigrant Project, which she designed and hopes to promote throughout the Anaheim City School District next year.
"My inspiration came when I visited Ellis Island, where my own grandfather had landed when he came to the U.S. from Russia," Young said. "I wanted to somehow combine the historical and emotional perspective of Ellis Island with the reality faced by many parents and students in my classroom."
Young's students have collected more than 100 oral histories, which she hopes to place in a database for easy access. This year, her students completed reports on immigrants from nearly 20 countries, ranging from places in South America to Eastern Europe.
"It opens up their eyes to the fact that all immigrants basically come here for the same reason," said Young, who emphasizes the lack of freedom in other countries.
"And it teaches them tolerance for other cultures."
Many students said hearing how their parents, neighbors and relatives came to the United States made them feel closer to their loved ones.
"It was the first time she told me the whole story," Nairoby Dionicio, 10, said of his mother. "I feel like I know everything about her now."