What Makes You

CAC and StuCO work together to create the “Faces of EL” project


Photo by Donald Keough

Holding her poster, Anissa Tran (12) poses in front of the “Faces of East Lansing” project. Tran is one of the 64 students who made portraits for the project.

When Anissa Tran (12) was little, she was scared of being different. She wanted to blend in and be like everyone else, because if she didn’t, she felt like she would be left out. When her mom would talk to her, kids would stare at her, and she was teased because of the food that she ate. 

But as she grew up she realized having a different culture made her unique, and she embraced her culture and took a lot of pride in it. So when the opportunity to be a part of the “Faces of EL” project came, she was quick to get involved.

Growing up in East Lansing, Tran’s Vietnamese background has been a big part of her life. This project has helped Tran express this part of her life.

“I come from a family that is very culturally and religiously based,” Tran said.” “We’re very different from your typical East Lansing Family.”

Tran’s family was initially from Vietnam, and has many relatives still living there. Her grandmother was one of 14 children and immigrated to the U.S. with Tran’s grandfather after he served in the army for the Republic of Vietnam, also known as South Vietnam, during the Vietnam war. Tran speaks Vietnamese, eats traditional meals and goes to The Van Hanh Temple in Lansing on Sundays. 

Her story, along with her peers’ stories have been put together as part of a collaboration between Cultural Awareness Club (CAC) and Student Council (StuCo). Her poster is one of many, along with 63 different student posters. Each poster aims to include a unique glimpse into the background of the featured student.

Secretary of CAC, Xu-Li Valadez (12), was one of the students behind the project. Not only did she help advance it, but she also was one of the students whose stories are in the display. Valadez and the other members had varying goals for the project.

“We wanted students to share their identities, and to really talk about their culture,” Valadez said. “But we also wanted to show how much diversity there is at this school.”

Valadez’s identity made her experience with the project unique. She is mixed Chinese and Mexican, so both cultures have played different roles in her life. 

“I talked about how it’s cool having both, because I grew up celebrating things like Chinese New Year and Day of the Dead,” Valadez said. “The ways in which they are related is something I also mentioned.” 

Co-Vice President of StuCo Aishah Abdulkadri also contributed to the project. She helped get students involved by distributing information about this project through things like Google Forms, social media posts and posters.

Abdulkadri and StuCo wanted to collaborate with CAC to spread awareness of the diversity at the school.

“We wanted to make more students aware of the different types of people at school, to embrace the diversity and celebrate it,” Abdulkadri said. “[The project] helped students who might have been from different backgrounds share their cultures and feel included in their differences.” 

Another one of the students who was part of the display was Marisa Serrato-Gamez (9). The display has helped other students get a better understanding of who she is. 

“I think a lot of people are confused when they see me sometimes. I’ve been mistaken for Italian a lot, or even just white,” Serrato-Gamez said.

The project also expresses the role her culture has played in her life.

“My culture is definitely a big part of my life as far as how I present myself,” Serrato-Gamez said. “It affects how I move in the world.”

Sharing student’s stories such as Serrato-Gamez’s is a priority of CAC. CAC plans to have additional projects like these in the future. They plan to do multicultural nights, and possibly food based activities. 

But the future projects and current projects aim to reach the same goal–to promote cultural awareness and celebrate culture at ELHS.  

“Ethnicity is what makes you different from everybody else,” Tran said. “It’s what makes you, you.”