Meng So, Undocumented Student Program at Cal

Meng So

Director, Undocu­mented Student Program at U.C. Berkeley

Meng So works with undocumented students at Cal. He talks about the role of love in his work, the need for authentic voices in social movements, and his (unfulfilled) NBA dreams.

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Where are you from? I was born along the Thailand/Cambodia border in a refugee camp and migrated to the Bay Area with my family and parents when I was two.

Where do you call home? Home is my family. It’s a feeling that makes my heart smile every time I walk in the door.

What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Three scrambled eggs with spinach, with siracha sprinkled on top, and a spinach-pineapple-banana smoothie.

What are you reading right now? Right now I’m wrapping up “I Am Malala” and I’ve fallen in love with her ability to weave storytelling in with identity formation and activism. Reading her book has gently reminded me that when we see the world through the eyes of those most in the margins, we can see things a lot more clearly–both the problems and the potential for transformative solution.

What compels you to do this work? A hunger for reform. Immigration reform is possible; it’s a solvable “problem.” I am very aware of the challenges in immigration, but gain so much hope and energy from my interactions with students and community allies. I work from a space of optimism and persistent belief that, together, we could strategically accelerate reform and get this done.

What do you wish you had known five years ago? To not be afraid to be an outlier. It’s okay to be different. Throughout my life I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable being different. Now I am comfortable being uncomfortable and realize that there is beauty and possibility in difference. And secondly, that as much as I love to listen, sometimes I wish I listened to myself more when I was younger.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in your work? I often think about where the movement is headed and what we need to do collectively to move things forward. And in that conversation, whose voices are being heard? If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound if no one hears it? If an undocumented immigrant gets deported, but no one hears about it, does it matter to our public consciousness of how we understand our own humanity? I’ve learned that it’s essential speak up. Authentic voices can, do and always will help shape a future of dignity for our communities.

What is your greatest fear? Early on in the movement I felt burnt-out. I really enjoyed the work I was doing but sometimes I felt that the idea of “running before walking” characterized my experiences. I felt guilty or embarrassed, especially growing up seeing my parents work long hours doing manual labor. I am always questioning if I am doing enough.

What is your current state of mind? An incredible spirit of gratitude, determination, and positivity. The best years of possibilities are ahead of us.

What is your greatest disappointment? That I didn’t make it to the NBA.

What is your personal motto? To love and be loved. I have a quote from Mother Teresa in my office that reads, “We must know that we have been created for greater things, not to just be a number in this world, not to just go for diplomas and degrees, to this work or that work. We have been created in order to love and be loved”.

What’s something that not many people know about you? I wear a double pendant necklace with an image of my parents on one side and an image of my grandparents on the flip side. I wear it everywhere I go, it never comes off. It’s a constant reminder of where I come from.

Meng So is the director of the Undocumented Student Program at U.C. Berkeley, which helps undocumented students and their families navigate the challenges of college life.