Catt Phan - A Walter H. Capps Intern Speaks Up for Language Justice

By Katherine Mosqueira

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Having arrived in Orange County, California from Vietnam in 1999, Catt Phan has experienced the hardships that immigrants face in building a life in America. After years of watching her family apply for food stamps, taking ESL classes, and interpreting important documents for her parents, the fourth year UC Santa Barbara student now strives to help immigrants in low-income communities make their transition into America easier.     

This year, Phan has been an intern with the the non-profit, Just Communities, which focuses on language justice for immigrants to the Santa Barbara area, mostly Spanish speakers.  A Global Studies major, with a minor in Professional Writing and Civic Engagement, Phan was selected for the Sara Miller McCune Endowed Internship and Public Service Program through the Walter H. Capps Center at UCSB.

She sees herself as an advocate for advancing understanding among multi-lingual communities. “There is a misconception that we have to speak on behalf of the ‘voiceless’ or those that can’t speak English, but that’s not necessarily true,” Phan said. “Marginalized communities have their own voice. What we need to do is pass along the mic to them so they feel like they have the ability to change their own lives.”

Through this work opportunity, she has helped educate and inform immigrants as to which resources are available for them to gain a more equal playing field in their new country. This includes creating newsletters, planning workshops, events, and networks around the community.

Policy and civil engagement have always been a passion of the Global Studies major. Before her internship with the Capps Center, Phan held several other internships back home in Orange County, including working for California’s 45th State Assembly district with the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs (APAPA). Once Phan came to UCSB she joined Associated Students, helped with Take Back the Night, a coalition which supports survivors of sexual violence. Phan also got involved with Lobby Corps, which advocates for students rights through lobbying, as well as the Office of the Student Advocate, a service that assists students accused of violating the University Code of Student Conduct, helping students to understand their rights.

Phan got her McCune internship at Just Communities via Nonie Hamilton, who has been the Internship Coordinator at Walter H. Capps Center for almost five years and is a health program manager at the Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County. Phan credits Hamilton as a strong advocate for language justice on the Central Coast. Language justice, Phan says, means “advocating that all languages and voices have equal opportunity to be heard.”

Phan is the only intern among nearly 60 employees and volunteers at Just Communities, where she understands the need for immigrant resources because she has lived through being a new arrival. Phan recalls a time when her mother, who spoke only Vietnamese, attempted to create a college savings account for her, but accidentally opened a life insurance policy instead, due to the language barrier.  


“A lot of bilingual kids of immigrant parents are expected to translate important information, such as conversations with doctors, parent-teacher conferences, and so on,” Phan said. “This puts a lot of pressure on the children because the translations aren’t always colloquial and often misconstrues cultural context, slang, and specific word translations.”

This is why Phan believes its so important for immigrants and their children to get the interpreters and education they need to succeed. But Just Communities does not solely provide interpreters. “The biggest thing we provide is education to local students and community members,” Phan said. This includes workshops and accreditation programs to encourage more English speakers to join the fight for language justice. A workshop like this taught Phan what it means to be a good interpreter, which includes advocating for the communities in a way that doesn’t take away someone’s voice.

“The main thing about this work is not for us to say what we think the other person should say, but having that person use their voice with the interpreters being the conduit to make sure they are able to say what they want to say.”

Phan recounted that during the Thomas Fire and mudslide crises, many Spanish- speaking residents were left in the dark because there wasn’t information available to them in a language they could understand. She helped plan and execute an “Emergency Interpreting” workshop so fellow community members had the basic skills of interpreting for emergency situations.

Phan’s accomplishments go beyond her extra-curricular work, to her academic studies. She recently won the Ellen Reid Writing Award, a $1500 annual scholarship to support a UCSB student pursuing a career involving writing or publishing. She plans to use this award money to further her education after her undergraduate career at UCSB. Phan intends to spend the next year studying for the GRE, while working at a non-profit when she moves back home and improving her Vietnamese and Spanish language skills. Phan has already made a huge impact during her time at UCSB and hopes to parlay that experience to a professional career helping people for years to come.

Katherine Mosqueira is a Humanities and Fine Arts editorial intern who will graduate this spring with a major in Film and Media Studies and a minor in Multimedia Communication Writing.

With reporting by Andrew Arias, during the Writing Program course Journalism for Web and Social Media.

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