A Refugee Connects with Students in Marshalltown

Aug 22, 2014

Aiddy Phomvisay at Marshalltown High School
Credit Rob Dillard

The marching band’s drum-line sets the tone for the first day of classes at Marshalltown High School.

Sixteen-hundred students fill the football-field bleachers as the school’s principal – Aiddy Phomvisay  – grabs a mike.

“If I could have your attention for less than five minutes," he announced. "I know that’s amazing that Mr. Phomvisay is only going to take five minutes to address the student body.”

The kids are about to flood the field for an hour of play – dodge ball at one end, a soccer shootout at the other, tug-of-war and gunny-sack races in between. But first, Phomvisay delivered a pep talk.

“And I have a single challenge for you," he said and that is the relationships we have with one another, the trust, the respect, the love and the care.”

Phomvisay leads a school where 37 languages are spoken. 32 percent of the high schoolers in Marshalltown are English-language learners, 45 percent are considered minorities. 65 percent receive free or reduced lunch. Phomvisay connects with these immigrant children in a special way. He’s a refugee from Laos, where his father served in the Royal Lao Army and supported U.S. interests in Southeast Asia during the 1970s.

“My father was a prisoner of war for eight months," he said. "After he escaped, he took us across the Mekong River into Thailand, and we were refugees there for three years.”

Phomvisay was seven when he arrived in the States. At that time, Iowa Governor Robert Ray was opening the state’s arms to people escaping war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Under the sponsorship of First United Methodist Church, the Phomvisay family of eight landed in Alta, a town of 18-hundred people near Storm Lake in Buena Vista County.

“An amazing community," he said. "It was just an iconic childhood growing up there, and I attribute all I’ve been able to do, all the learning, the life experiences, the preparation for things like this, it’s just an unbelievable dream come true.”

He learned English from volunteers in the church basement. He settled into small-town life and eventually married his hometown sweetheart. He was teaching American history in middle school even before he had passed the U.S. citizenship exam. Major achievements that lead him to believe anything is possible with hard work. Back out on the athletic field, he took a Burmese refugee – a young woman beginning her senior year – under his wing.

“And what are you going to do after graduation?" he asked. "What college are you going to? MCC, good for you, and after that I want you to go to a four-year university, OK, you can do it and I’ll help you.”

Phomvisay encouraged her knowing it is possible to escape the past, it is possible to accomplish meaningful things. He’s proof. Aiddy Phomvisay is the 2014 Secondary Principal of the Year in the state. The Iowa International Center will hand him its Passport to Prosperity award in September.

“We’re off to a great start, and we’re looking at an amazing 2014-2015 MHS school year, thank you very much and go Bobcats.”