What began this winter as a typical group project quickly morphed into a journey of self-discovery for four Shakopee High School students trying to raise awareness about domestic violence.

“Everyone knows domestic violence is bad. But when you’re given the task to go deeper inside it and look at the inner workings, we realized it affected every single one of us in some way,” said Visara Sok, a student in the high school’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies program.

“It’s one of those things — it’s there, but to other people it’s not seen or recognized enough unless it involves you personally.”

Sok spent part of last semester working with classmates Desirah Annan, Jinda Ratsavongsy and Melanie Cabello on their capstone project for the Healthcare and Medicine CAPS program. As part of the program, students attend classes at places like St. Francis Regional Medical Center and Shutterfly, where career professionals are able to provide hands-on learning experiences.

For their project, the students were assigned a client: the Southern Valley Alliance for Battered Women, a non-profit organization that provides support and advocacy for Scott and Carver County domestic abuse victims.

Since February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, the young women teamed up to create a video shedding light on unhealthy behavior in dating relationships. They also created “potty posters” — small posters with a scannable QR code. The posters are meant to be placed in bathroom stalls so people experiencing domestic abuse have an opportunity to privately scan the QR code, which directs them to the Southern Valley Alliance for Battered Women website.

Despite what its name suggests, SVABW can also be a resource for men experiencing domestic abuse, according to Community Relations Director Stephanie Smith, who mentored and guided the students over the course of their project. One in three women have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, but one in four men have experienced the same, Smith said, so the students’ potty posters are meant for both men’s and women’s bathrooms.

Though the four young women were in class together, they weren’t friends before they started their project. It turns out they have more in common than they expected.

Each of the students is a second-generation immigrant, meaning at least one of their parents was born outside of the U.S. and relocated here, and each of them have been touched by domestic abuse in some way.

“We never really thought we would be in this group together,” said Desirah Annan, whose mom immigrated to the U.S. from Ghana. “I never really thought any of their parents immigrated here.”

“We are so different from each other, but the one thing that connects us is we all have that relationship to domestic violence and we are the minorities of the school,” Sok said. Sok’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Cambodia. “Shakopee is very white-based. We had that type of bond where we understand one another.”

One thing that took the young women by surprise was that domestic abuse isn’t just physical, but can be emotional abuse, too. That’s why their teen dating video focuses on the emotional aspect. The video shows a girl text messaging her boyfriend and getting upset that he’s spending time with other friends, which demonstrates unhealthy, controlling behavior.

Cultural nuances played into their views of domestic abuse, too, they said. Jinda Ratsavongsy’s parents came to the U.S. from Laos, and she assumed certain behaviors she saw in her own family were just culturally different from those born in the U.S.

“I knew it happened in other families, but I just thought it was normal in Asian families because that’s just how the culture is,” Ratsavongsy said. “I was sort of ignorant to it at first. The statistic is very real. It goes on everywhere, even if it’s not physically abusive.”

Ratsavongsy said she sees abusive behavior in the way some of her friends’ partners talk to them.

“It’s emotionally abusive, but they don’t really realize it,” she said. “Learning about it more, you start to distinguish it from what a healthy relationship is like. Just because you can’t see the mental abuse doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Melanie Cabello’s mother came to the U.S. from Mexico as a 16-year-old and then met Cabello’s dad. Growing up, Cabello didn’t recognize domestic abuse was part of her parents relationship, even though it was affecting her ability to open up to friends and classmates. She grew up shy, feeling nervous to talk to people out of fear she would say something about her home life.

“My entire life until high school, I did not talk at all,” she said. “Now look at me — I’m in a college course giving presentations. I never knew I could be so loud in a way to have my voice heard by so many different people.”

“Hearing (my mom’s) story is really hard,” Cabello added. “I never knew that was actually domestic violence.”

Ratsavongsy had a similar experience to Cabello. She grew up shy with social anxiety, and it wasn’t until she sought help for her mental health that her family sat down and hashed out some of their behaviors together.

“Your parents think you don’t know what’s going on, but you do. You hear things — you lay up at night and can hear them arguing,” Ratsavongsy said. “Finally... my family was able to sit down and talk about it. Through that, we’ve learned to grow and communicate instead of it being behind closed doors.”

Learning to communicate in healthy ways with her family has made a huge difference.

“That’s what’s helped me grow as a person,” she said. “I never would expect that I’d be giving a presentation to important people and working with such brave and confident girls.”

Annan can attest to the power of communication. She used to bottle her feelings about her home life, too, thinking she was the only one with an unhealthy home life. But over time and through this project, she learned that wasn’t the case.

“When you’re going through it at home, you don’t want other people to know about it. You don’t want people to look down on your family, because you’re already an immigrated family,” Annan said. “I mainly thought it was my family until I started seeing other people go through this.”

When she was younger, Annan would bottle her anger at home and let it out at school by picking fights. She was kicked out of school in another city and was close to dropping out permanently in ninth grade.

“Talking about where we see ourselves today, I didn’t even think I would be in high school honestly,” she said. “My mom tells me every day that she’s really proud of me. Now I’m about to go to college.”

As their client, Smith was able to meet with the students over the course of the project and get to know their stories better, too. Watching them grow and bond was particularly rewarding, knowing how far they’ve come since their mostly shy childhoods.

“I have been so impressed with these young women,” Smith said. “They all come from humble backgrounds and are working hard to make a better life for themselves and their families. Society marginalizes women and especially women of color, but that is not stopping these young ladies. These (women) are going to do amazing things for their country and for their community.”

Annan, Sok, Ratsavongsy and Cabello all agree with that sentiment. They all have plans to go into the health care field after college, and nothing will stop them.

“Even if we do have social anxiety and we’re all minorities, we can do these great things and we’ll go on to do even greater things, I’m positive,” Ratsavongsy said.

Reporter and Lifestyle Guide Coordinator

Amanda McKnight has been a Southwest News Media reporter for four years. Amanda is passionate about accountability journalism and describes herself as spunky and assertive. She enjoys running, knitting, exploring nature and going on adventures with her hu

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