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Primarily for Parents

With a third of its students from households where English is not the main language, Cal State Long Beach offers parent orientation in Spanish, Vietnamese and Khmer.

July 29, 1998|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

With the halting steps of a newcomer, Saeng Im Keu started off timidly across the Cal State Long Beach campus. Then she froze. Looking around with panic in her eyes, she finally spotted something reassuringly familiar: the squiggly script of her native Cambodian language guiding her to "parent orientation."

Keu spent the next five hours Saturday in the comforting refuge of a class conducted in the Khmer language, alongside two dozen other Cambodian parents of incoming freshmen.

In a nearby lecture hall, 180 parents attended a similar class--but in Spanish. Another one was held earlier this month in Vietnamese, along with the usual series of classes for parents in English.

Although most campuses these days have special daylong programs for parents while their children sit through freshman orientation, Cal State Long Beach is one of the few that have begun to offer them in foreign languages.

Freshman orientation, of course, is always conducted in English, given that students must have sufficient command of the language to do university-level work.

That's not so for their parents.

And Cal State Long Beach officials say the freshman year can be confusing enough for families--even without a language barrier.

"It's not fair for parents not to know what's going on with this school, just because they don't speak English," said Robert C. Maxson, president of Cal State Long Beach.

So this year, for the first time, the university's parent orientation program has added Khmer for the Cambodian refugees who settled in Long Beach, and Vietnamese for those immigrants who settled largely in Orange County.

It's the sixth year the program has been offered in Spanish, a popular option that draws more parents every year.

"We hope to provide whatever languages are needed for our changing populations," said Randy Zarn, who runs the campus' student transition and retention services. "We have a need for Chinese, too."

All of this is part of a growing recognition that a third of Cal State Long Beach students now come from homes where English is not the primary language.

To be sure, other campuses in California find themselves in similar situations. As a result, Cal State L.A. offers parent orientation in Spanish, and so did Cal State Fullerton this year.

A few other state universities will stage parent orientation in foreign languages upon special request. More often, though, campuses provide translators--often bilingual students--for parents who need assistance at English-language sessions.

Cal State Long Beach is in an unusual position even among schools in California's cultural melting pot.

The university is just a few miles up the freeway from Westminster's Little Saigon, the hub of a large Vietnamese community that sends 1,500 students to the school.

And the city of Long Beach has the largest concentration of Cambodians--an estimated 50,000--outside Phnom Penh.

The seeds of this community were sown by Cal State Long Beach in the 1950s and 1960s, when the school had a popular student exchange program with Phnom Penh University.

The students with ties to the community established the beachhead that soon attracted waves of refugees fleeing the "Killing Fields" of Cambodia in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Now, their sons and daughters are reaching college age. About 300 Cambodian American students were enrolled last spring at Cal State Long Beach. Campus officials expect the number to grow.

"So many in the neighborhood feel that they need permission to come on campus," said Alan Nishio, the university's associate vice president for student services. "We try to explain that we are a community resource and they are welcome."

During Saturday's freshman orientation, campus officials sent students in one direction and their parents in another--a symbolic parting that brought some anxious looks.

While the students learned about general education requirements and how to register for classes, their parents were schooled in what to expect in the coming years.

The parents, for instance, were told that it's quite natural for students to change their majors, and not to worry if their children spend some late nights at the library.

The Cambodian parents sat quietly and respectfully through the session.

When President Maxson bounded in at midmorning to deliver his energetic welcome, they didn't muster a single question for the campus leader.

Instead, two of the older men, speaking through an interpreter, went on at great length about how much they appreciated Maxson's appearance and their gratitude that their children were accepted by the university.

The parent orientation in Spanish was a much more spirited affair.

When Maxson showed up, parents wanted to know about campus safety, how to track their children's grades and how to keep abreast of campus activities.

Nestor Leal asked how hard it would be to call the president directly if a problem popped up, and "How long would it take you to get back to me?"

Maxson said he was always available, but suggested that it was time for the young people to take control of their own lives. "The students don't have to come find me; I'm always out on the campus, and they can't help but run into me."

Several women in the audience shared happy stories about their older children who had gone off to college. Each one brought enthusiastic applause.

Luvy Leal said she was surprised and delighted by the quality of Spanish spoken at the event. "It's like being with family."

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