Not too long ago, Vietnamese-American student Tien Tran sat with a couple friends during lunchtime at Challenger Middle School when he noticed a man walking around with sunglasses on top of his head, a large backpack and a school binder. The man walked up to Tien asked about the cast on his leg: “What happened to your ankle?” Tien said he broke it while skateboarding.

“Oh geez, I know a few professional skateboarders who have hurt themselves too but as soon as their injury has healed, they are right back out there,” the man said sympathetically, creating an instant bond. “My name is Vinh, by the way.”

Fourteen-year old Tien introduced himself and soon learned that the man, Vinh Tran, works with an after-school youth program held every week at the school campus through the Union of Pan Asian Communities (UPAC), nonprofit providing social services to Asians, Pacific Islanders and other ethnic communities in San Diego. Vinh invited him to join the group the following week to check it out.

Tien decided to attend one of the sessions and found out that he was not alone with some of the challenges and issues he had going on in his personal life. By listening to some of the other kids’ issues and challenges along with Vinh’s advice and recommendations, it helped him sort out a lot of his own social and family problems. He decided to join the group on a regular basis and has become one of many local teens who’ve gained confidence thanks to the UPAC Youth Mentorship Program.

Here’s how it’s improved the lives of local teens:

It prevents gang and substance abuse

In 2009, the Department of Justice noticed an increase in the amount of Asian Americans involved in gangs and substance abuse in the San Diego region. The department decided to help lower the numbers by giving a federal grant to the Union of Pan Asian Communities where the money would be used to create a youth mentorship after-school program to decrease the statistics.

It targets schools in San Diego with high Asian American populations

In 2009, when the pilot of Youth Mentorship Program launched, it focused its efforts on four San Diego communities with high Asian American populations: Mira Mesa, City Heights, Paradise Hills and Linda Vista.

“Our strategy was to work with the school district and be directly on school campuses when kids got out for the day,” said James Diokno, who oversees the youth programs at UPAC.

[call_to_action color=”” button_text=”Donate $50 to Help an At-Risk Teen” button_url=””]
By donating $50 to the UPAC High Risk Youth Mentorship Program, you can help bring the program back to City Heights and Linda Vista. Contributions will be used to provide supportive services to help middle school youth transition to high school and high school youth prepare for post-secondary education or the workforce.

Staff and administrators recommend students to the UPAC program who are at risk of being in a gang, currently in a gang, and/or have family or school problems. Its door is also open to students affected by peer pressure, drugs, violence, and bullying. The organization has worked with these eight middle and high schools:
• Mira Mesa High School
• Challenger Middle School
• Montgomery Middle School
• Kearny High School
• Hoover High School
• Monroe Clark Middle School
• Bell Middle School
• Morse High School

Today, the program lives on in Mira Mesa and Paradise Hills. These areas were selected because of their high Asian-American populations. In addition to these areas having high Asian American youth populations, these areas also lack culturally-competent services for those youth in those communities. With more funding, the organization hopes to return to all the schools. Here are some of the schools with the program currently:

Photo courtesy of Union of Pan Asian Communities.
Photo courtesy of Union of Pan Asian Communities.
Photo courtesy of Union of Pan Asian Communities.

The mentors are relatable and experienced

Mentors come from similar backgrounds as students in the program, helping them to be relatable and easier to open up to. Mentors understand the pressure of having to balance two cultures at a time in school, a struggle encountered by many of the students who come from refugee or immigrant families. Vinh, for example, is the child of parents who came to the United States during the Vietnam War as refugees.

Growing up, Vinh felt a lot of pressure to get good grades and take care of his family. It was hard for him to balance the customs of the culture he grew up in and the customs of the culture his American peers in school practiced. He wanted to fit in with both, and the stress contributed to experimenting with substances and hanging out with the wrong people in high school. He got into trouble, and that’s how he ended up receiving counseling services from UPAC.

“There was a good sense of judgement and understanding because they knew the culture,” Vinh Tran said. “When anyone talked about social services for Asian Americans, they talk about Union of Pan Asian Communities.”

Students learn coping mechanisms like how to control their negative feelings and channeling it to their strengths like sports or art. In his sessions with the students, Vinh teaches them better ways to communicate by being a good listener first, controlling their reactions, and sharing their points of view.

*Note: Union of Pan Asian helps all students, no matter their ethnicity.

It offers a place for teens to talk openly, free of judgment

Students meet once a week for a couple of hours after school for the youth mentorship program. With 13-15 students, the sessions feel small and intimate. They get the chance to build one-on-one relationships with their mentors. Students can talk about anything they’d like at these sessions, the topics range from mental health, racism, stereotypes, and LGBT and gender issues.

Diokno remembers growing up in Washington D.C. dealing with racism and substance abuse just like the students currently in the mentorship program.

“I could have saved myself a lot of the heartache that I went through if there had been a group like UPAC to be involved with. We pose a lot of difficult questions and situations to the kids and then discuss it openly and then provide the guidance on how to handle it,” Diokno said.

The program makes students feel like they have somewhere to build strong relationships and receive support.

“Vinh was always there for me, and I never felt the love I was getting from him from anybody else,” said Tien Tran, the former student.

Tien feels the support he received from Vinh made him confident enough to make changes to his lifestyle and live the life he dreamed of.

It raises community leaders

The youth mentorship program teaches its students to take pride in themselves and their communities.

Some of Tien’s most favorite memories from the youth mentorship program were cleaning up the beaches and volunteering in the city. He liked volunteering because it gave him a chance to meet other students. Today, 20-year-old Tien serves his community as the police cadet captain, a top rank among cop trainees with the San Diego Police Department. He even received the Volunteer of the Year award as police cadet captain.

“You have to realize, I would not be here today … if it was not for Vinh’s countless hours of mentorship and guidance,” Tien said.

This year, Tien will graduate with degrees in liberal arts and criminal justice. He plans on becoming a police officer at the SDPD and wants to help the younger generations like Vinh helped him.

Learn more about UPAC’s sponsor, SDG&E.


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