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‘The power of I’: A NIU student’s journey from Cambodia to DeKalb

November 23, 2018

DeKALB – I Younan An traveled a long way to play Yahtzee.

A 21-year-old Northern Illinois University senior from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, An grew up the only son of two tailors. His parents grew up during the Khmer Rouge regime, a period of Communist rule after the Cambodian Civil War. They also survived the Cambodian Genocide by the regime, during which almost

2 million Cambodian people were killed from 1975 to 1979.

An’s parents knew from an early age that he would not go into the family business. They poured the majority of their income into his schooling. He learned English at age 3.

“I’m the first one to actually get out, to go to college, in my family,” An said.

Although far from home, An has found something of the sort in DeKalb, and even some fellow Cambodian friends to keep him company as he navigates busy student life, volunteer work and working for the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at NIU. He volunteers regularly at the Huskie food pantry, the Southeast Asia Club, the Residence Hall Association, Model United Nations, NIU Best Buddies and more.

“Being a Buddhist, I believe you do good, you get good,” An said in Dr. Kheang Un’s office, An’s political science professor and personal mentor. Un also is from Cambodia and, fittingly, attended the same high school as An, only years before. The two have developed a pupil-mentor relationship and spent Thanksgiving together at Un’s home.

“[My wife] hosts a bicultural Thanksgiving,” Un said, adding that turkey curry often is on the menu. “Red curry, of course – it’s Cambodian.”

Un and his American wife live in DeKalb, where he has taught at NIU since 1989 after graduating as a student.

“I found a very enthusiastic appetite for knowledge,” Un said of his pupil. “When I went to school, [Cambodia] had just emerged out of the regime [and genocide], so the government had this slogan: ‘Those who know more teach those who know less.’ ”

An’s path to NIU began when he still was in high school. He began volunteering for the Cambodian Red Cross in eighth grade, and recognition for his work led him to a three-week exchange program with the Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program through the NIU Center for Southeast Asian Studies at age 17.

Smitten with DeKalb, An returned as an undergrad and was paired with a host family from Sycamore. They often would meet up with their neighbor who happened to be Liz Denius, communication manager with the center, who has known An his whole college career.

“We would get together, and on An’s first night we played a game of Yahtzee – it’s the perfect ice breaker. You don’t have to know much English or say much,” Denius said. “He had the best luck all night; we called it ‘the power of I.’ ”

An is set to graduate in December, majoring in political science with an emphasis in international politics, a double minor in economics and sociology, and a recently acquired certificate in women’s studies. An also was nominated by Un for the 2018 Lincoln Laureate for NIU, an esteemed recognition he was awarded Saturday in Springfield. He was a policy and engagement intern for the Minneapolis Fire Department over the summer, and has traveled to conferences and for summer work in nearly 20 states.

An has not been back to Cambodia since 2014. He spent Thanksgiving surrounded by fellow Cambodians, thanks to Un.

“I really admire Professor Un because he really values hard work,” An said. “That’s what my parents think, too, so advice from him is like getting advice from them.”

An said his favorite Turkey Day treat is sweet potatoes, and he eats turkey with gravy, not cranberry sauce. Another love of his is deeply rooted in Midwestern culture: potlucks.

“Bring a dish to pass? That’s not a thing in Cambodia,” An said. “Friendsgiving, those are the things I wish Cambodian people would learn about.”

Although winters took some getting used to – it does not get below a crisp 70 degrees in Cambodia – An said he has learned to tolerate it. What he finds most endearing about Midwest life is the quality of people. An will begin a master’s program at NIU in January and will work for the center. He plans to pursue a career with an nongovernmental organization or become a diplomat.

“Although DeKalb is a very small town, the community here, once you feel it, it’s like home to me,” An said. “That’s why it’s not hard for me to be away from home for so long, because people in DeKalb and my professors have made this home for me.”

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