Vientiane to UWM, she’s making history

Buasawan Simmala
PhD Urban Education
Hometown(s): Vientiane and Milwaukee
It’s a fact: While earning her degree, she wrote and published “Lao for Beginners.”

Buasawan Simmala was born and spent her childhood in rural Laos at a time when studying in the Western world was inconceivable for someone like her.

When she receives her doctorate in urban education from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on May 20, she believes she will become the first woman from Laos, and only the second Laotian citizen, to earn a doctorate at an American university in the 37 years since Laos came under communist rule.

Simmala raised two children on her own while earning her doctorate. In fact, her daughter receives a degree from the Lubar School of Business the same day as Simmala, and her son is working on his third business degree at UWM.

“We are a ‘UWM-made’ family,” says Simmala.

She is proud to be a citizen of Laos and a resident of Wisconsin, and feels both are now part of who she is.

Simmala’s long journey to UWM began in her middle school years when she joined a friend at an English language class at a nearby temple. She was intrigued by the language, but the Laotian government didn’t encourage language study, particularly the study of Western languages.

After earning an undergraduate degree in Viet Nam and becoming fluent in Vietnamese, Lao and Thai, she got a job at the American Embassy. A job-related training trip to Washington, D.C., her first visit to America, reawakened her interest in becoming fluent in English and studying in America.

“It was so totally different from my country and very different from what I imagined before I came,” she says of that first trip. “It was like another planet.”

America’s diversity entranced her. “It’s like an international country. I didn’t know the U.S. had so many different ethnicities.”

After several years of work and research, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to begin graduate study in international commerce and public policy at George Mason University. At that point, however, her focus shifted from commerce and trade to helping others in her country learn and succeed.

“I felt that my dream was only half-fulfilled since I have a strong passion for social development. I want to help other people who are less fortunate than me.”

In the summer of 2001, she came to Wisconsin to teach Lao at UWM and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then applied for and received an assistantship in the School of Education’s urban education doctoral program.

Her research and dissertation on the cross-cultural adjustment process of Lao and Vietnamese graduate students in the U.S. reflects some of the issues she herself faced.

Living and learning in a foreign country can be challenging, she says, because of language barriers, cultural and financial issues and feelings of isolation. Simmala developed her own coping strategies.

“When I faced a problem, I tried not to panic, to calm down. I thought about ways to solve the problem and where I could get help.”

She formed relationships with other international students with families, who shared their experiences and supported each other.

Supportive colleagues and faculty members were also vital, she says.

“My advisor, Dr. Larry Martin, was always there for me if I had any questions about the program or anything. He listened to me and gave me advice and his time. He made me feel like I could do it.”