SHE-CAN: We heard this is CSAM’s biggest event of the year. How did it go?
Sreytom: The event was a great success. It was open to the public and around 500 people came! Everyone enjoyed the food and performances and had a great time with their families and friends. We got good feedback from the audience.
SHE-CAN: That’s great news! Congratulations. Can you explain the importance of this annual event?
Sreytom: The purpose of this event is to celebrate the Cambodian New Year by bringing the community both inside and outside of U of M together. Also, it’s a chance for us to share our culture and tradition with others. Typically the Khmer New Year is three days and each day is devoted to different festivities. So for this year's celebration we decided to combine the festivities from all three days into one evening. Everyone came together to celebrate the common good at the home, temple and community. We reflected on the past year and received blessings for the new year!
SHE-CAN: Can you describe the fun activities that took place throughout the evening?
Sreytom: Guests were entertained all night! We did three skits to reflect the meaning of the three days of the Khmer New Year. Two groups from our Cambodian community performed two traditional dances and one folk dance. The CSAM Board performed a modern dance. We held a HQ trivia game about Cambodia called KhmerHoot, and at the end of the night everyone danced to traditional Cambodian music.
SHE-CAN: What was your favorite part about the event?
Sreytom: I was able to meet with elder Cambodian people in the community and share my culture with others. The event made me feel like I was back home.
SHE-CAN: Is this the first time you've ever organized an on campus event? Can you describe what it was like?
Sreytom: I’ve organized events in the past, but this is the first time that I was in charge of a big event. I was excited and nervous at the same time. I was so confident with my decisions, but at times I still felt scared of failing. I started planning this event back in November 2017 and was grateful to have 42 people help me out including CSAM board members, volunteers and interns.
Also, working with a team normally presents challenges because everyone has conflicting schedules and different perspectives. Although everything didn’t go 100% as expected, such as only half the performers could make the dress rehearsal, everything turned out great at the end of the night.
SHE-CAN: Did organizing this event help you strengthen your leadership skills?
Sreytom: Absolutely! I learned how to work with a team more effectively and how to assign tasks based on people’s interests and skills. Also, I learned how to manage my schedule so that it was easy for me to make time to coordinate with everyone on my team.
SHE-CAN: What's it like to celebrate the Khmer New Year in the U.S. with both the Cambodian community on your campus and in Minnesota in general?
Sreytom: It is totally different. Of course, we did not have all the materials that we needed but we managed to make the event similar to how people celebrate back home.
I’m really proud that the event went well. The successful turnout and response showed me that everyone from the community really values Cambodian culture and they are not afraid to show it to others. Most of my Cambodian American friends were born in the U.S, so they don’t know much about Cambodia. But I’m happy to see how at my age they’re trying to learn and practice Cambodian culture.
The children are orphans, and they live in a small house rented for them by the church that their mom used to attend. After she told me their story, I wanted so badly to help them because I believe in doing small acts for other people.
I decided to visit the children and share a meal with them. I asked a friend to go with me, and we bought different kinds of food that would last for a week and ready-to-eat snacks. When we arrived at their home, we found out one of the kids was extremely sick and she couldn't go to the hospital because she had no money or health insurance. It really touched my heart, and I told myself that I could do more. So I set a personal goal to do whatever it would take to get their family health insurance.
When I came back to Michigan State University earlier this year, I organized a fundraising activity. I started by telling some of my friends at school about the kids. I told them that even one dollar could change their lives because health insurance in Rwanda is not that expensive. The government pays a high percentage of health insurance and the rest is covered by individuals. Everyone gave whatever they had and although not many people contributed, I raised $120 to purchase health insurance cards for all of them.
Since I was at school, I called the family's older sister and shared the good news. My sister in Rwanda agreed to help me so she visited the family and helped them get their insurance cards. They were super happy and surprised because we only met once. They probably thought that I had forgotten about them. I'm still in touch with the children and sometimes I send my sister to go and visit them on my behalf. This experience taught me it really doesn't take that much money to help others, and one thing that I keep telling myself is that a small act can change someone’s life. It’s very fulfilling to achieve the small goals that you set for yourself!
It has always been my motivation to help because it simply provides a happiness that I know I can never get anywhere else. Plus it doesn’t require anything other than a heart that desires to serve others. Helping reminds me of my purpose, and I take every single opportunity to give back and make a difference.
My two best friends Kananura Brigitte and Ornella Urutesi Rwanziza, my best friend and future Muhlenberg sister, are the best cooks I know. They are in Rwanda but stayed up all night on the phone to help me cook chicken. At times they would make fun of me as we went through the directions but I’m very thankful to have friends who are constantly willing to help no matter where I am and at any time of the day.
For the remainder of the week, I cooked everything by myself including sweet potatoes, pasta and peanut sauce. The food was delicious, and I believe that I’m improving my cooking skills. My aunt has always pushed me to learn to cook because she told me, “The skill will come in handy one day.” On my third night of cooking, I called her and she told me she was proud and can’t wait to taste my food. I can’t wait for her to taste my food either!
Attending a campus sports event and filming the game:
Being in college, all of my friends go to sports games but I prefer to stay in my room. The last sporting event I remember watching was the World Cup in 2006. However, over break I decided to attend the men’s lacrosse game against Moravian College. Earlier in the week, I received an email asking if there were any students on campus who wanted to volunteer and operate the cameras at the game, but I didn’t reply because I had never operated a camera before. I got to the stadium early and when I saw the coach, who’s also the professor of my fitness class, I said hi. He was telling someone that they probably weren’t going to stream the game since no one was willing to hold the cameras. I told him I can try but was not sure of what I should do. He provided instructions, and I ended up filming the game.
While filming, I watched every move the players performed, the effort, the miles put in their victory and the support each player gave their teammates. I worked with two cameras, and my main duties were to focus in the middle each time a goal was scored and zoom in when the players celebrated a goal. My fitness professor was so thrilled I volunteered that after the game he came up to me and said, "You did an amazing job and thank you so much for your help! You made this happen!"
I enjoyed this new experience. It felt amazing to help out my professor and campus community, and I loved watching how happy all the players were when the Mules scored. The game was very close and seeing the sweat, scars and dedication of each player was inspiring. It reminded me to fight for the things that I really care about.
I was proud of myself for attending the game versus staying in my room, and I enjoyed feeling more connected to the outside world. Now I understand why everyone else is always excited on game days. You walk away inspired and full of energy. I can’t wait to feel these emotions again because next time my friends will not go without me!
Facing my fear of heights:
Another way I challenged myself was by going rock climbing at the North Summit Climbing Gym. I’m very afraid of heights and it’s hard for me to trust people so I was nervous to work with someone who was going to pull my rope in while I climbed. I had never met my belayer before but as I climbed higher on the wall I began to let go of all my trust issues and started to believe that she was keeping me safe and wouldn’t let me fall. I successfully climbed the first, second and third levels and was very proud of myself.
Even though I spent most of my break at Muhlenberg, I was grateful when my mentor Katherine Bates invited me to join her in New York. She was in the city for work, and I took a bus and train to meet her. It was freezing, but a good experience because I always have fun with Katherine. While exploring New York, I felt inspired just by watching how the people work through the cold and how the city is always bustling. We walked through Times Square and the NYU Stern School of Business where Katherine’s an alumna.
Overall, I had the best week. When my friends returned to campus I was excited to be reunited with them and share everything I had accomplished. By choosing to spend spring break at Muhlenberg, I told myself I wouldn’t fall into boredom and loneliness. Rather, I used the time off to challenge myself. Every day I woke up with a smile on my face and full of energy. I realized I was wrong to think that I can be only be happy when surrounded by others. By focusing on myself for a full week, I learned I’m capable of having fun and opening myself up to new opportunities.
This year, our trip partnered with the St. Bernard Project (SBP) which is a nonprofit organization that was established in March 2006 to help in the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. The mission of SBP is to create housing opportunities so that Hurricane Katrina survivors can return to their homes and communities. Additionally, SBP provides trainings for homeowners and small businesses to be more disaster resilient and works to shrink the time between disaster and recovery.
I chose to participate in this trip because I was inspired by the work the organization has been doing even after more than 10 years following Hurricane Katrina. We volunteered in New Orleans from March 3-10. I was excited to work, live and spend time with our group of volunteers which included 14 Muhlenberg students and staff, including Sandrine Uwisanze who is also part of SHE-CAN. After orientation, we were tasked to work on the home of two sisters which had been hit by a tornado and left the family’s home with extensive damages.
Our main tasks involved hands-on services with the SBP staff through construction work. During our shifts, we mainly worked on mudding and sanding drywalls. Since I had no experience in construction work I was nervous and not sure what to expect. However, it ended up being an amazing experience! Throughout the week, I learned skills that I greatly enjoyed doing and will definitely use in the future.
This experience was eye-opening because I learned about the extensive work that goes into building a house and this made me appreciate the work SBP does even more. Also, I enjoyed the aspect of working in a group. Although the work was physically demanding, we had fun bonding as a team, and it was a privilege to be part of a community making an impact that will help bring a family back home.
By volunteering I gained more knowledge about the rich history of New Orleans both before and after the disaster. I also became aware of the barriers that hinder the community from reaching full recovery such as a lack of awareness and funding. We left with the mission to hopefully raise more awareness of the city’s ongoing needs. This trip was my first visit to New Orleans, and not only was it exciting to explore the city and learn from its amazing and vibrant community but I left knowing my team and I had made a difference. Now more than ever, I’m inspired to share the incredible mission of SBP in hopes that others will want to help bring the next family on the waitlist home.
Grace: Thank you! That was a fun evening. I grew up in a Christian family and my faith is a very important part of my life. I grew up singing with children from my Sunday school. At first a choir didn’t exist, but in 2007 my church formed an official children’s choir named Coeur Joyeux. I’m still a part of this choir but it’s no longer a children’s choir since many of us are grown-ups.
Additionally, my mother and two sisters love to sing and everyone in our family always encourages us. In 2012, I realized singing was my calling and that I could use this gift to help bring others together. I started leading worship at my home church in the English and Kinyarwanda services. I received many compliments that boosted my confidence, and I started to love singing more. Eventually, I became interested in learning how to play an instrument. My friend Allain started giving me tips on how to play keyboard so that I could learn to simultaneously perform the music and sing.
SHE-CAN: In addition to keyboard, do you play any other musical instruments? If so, what are they and are you self-taught on each?
Grace: Yes, I play guitar, cajón and a little bit of drums. Last summer, my friend Pauline Delacruz helped me improve my guitar skills. I grew up playing beats on one drum so the cajón wasn’t hard for me to learn. I was that kid who would be drumming in class and everyone would be like, “Grace, we are trying to study!” I’m learning how to play a full drum kit, and my friend Faith Thomas gives me lessons. I still have lots to learn but I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has given me lessons on how to play these incredible instruments.
SHE-CAN: As a computer science major, does this creative outlet of singing help you think about STEM in a different way?
Grace: Yes, my love of singing encouraged me to explore how to play instruments, and I believe this has taught me to be more creative. Although I ask others for advice, I’m mostly a self-taught musician. Learning how to play instruments on my own encourages me to find new techniques. When I compare this to STEM, especially my major, it’s a similar process because I’m always trying to figure out new solutions on my own.
SHE-CAN: Many singers post videos of themselves performing on their social media accounts. Do you ever share videos of yourself singing?
Grace: Yes, I enjoy sending videos to my friends on WhatsApp and sometimes I post them on Facebook. I’ve recently created a YouTube channel and started performing covers of other people’s songs. I know a time will come when I will share my own songs that I’ve written - stay tuned!
SHE-CAN: At Muhlenberg, are you taking music classes or involved in other campus organizations where you sing/perform?
Grace: I’m not taking any music classes but would love to in the near future. The DiscipleMakers Christian Fellowship worship team is where I sing, and I immediately knew this organization was going to be where I felt most at home!
Also, once I arrived in the United States, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find a place where I could continue to pursue my love of singing. After joining DCF, I visited many of their worship team rehearsals before I became a part of the team in Jan. 2017. I sing and play keyboard. We have rehearsals every Thursday evening and then lead others in Friday’s DCF Large Group gathering.
SHE-CAN: Aside from the music component, what's your favorite part about DCF?
Grace: It’s a place full of genuinely friendly people. It’s very important to be with people who encourage you even when you’re at your lowest and we constantly work to lift each other up.
SHE-CAN: Can you share any fun or interesting stories from DCF?
Grace: In spring 2017, DCF took a service trip to Lake Champions in New York where we served around 300 middle school students. We were divided in different groups, and my responsibility was to serve the children food and drinks. It was a great experience sharing my energy and serving others. I loved it so much that I signed up for the trip again this semester, but unfortunately it was cancelled due to bad weather. Everyone was disappointed it was cancelled but I believe everything happens for a reason. Hopefully, I will get to go next spring break.
Read stories written by our talented scholars and multiple voices across the SHE-CAN network