Jenna Pel takes pride in her Cambodian culture and heritage, and she demonstrates these values as the president of the University of Houston’s LGBTQ Alumni Association.
Her commitment to community and identity pushed her to streamline the association’s scholarship process and more effectively provide funds to UH students in the LGBTQ community. The association now interviews and connects candidates to other recipients at a scholarship dinner.
“The hope is to create an efficient, rigorous, and durable process that allows us to have more personal touchpoints with the recipients,” says Pel, a pansexual Cambodian American. “As alumni, helping students who are in the position we were once in motivates and drives us.”
Pel admits she wasn’t always invested in the UH community. Although she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history at UH, she did not feel connected to the campus as a student. However, when the Pulse Nightclub shooting occurred three years after she graduated, Pel wanted to get involved and uplift queer students at her alma mater.
“I wanted to devote more time and energy to the LGBTQ community,” Pel says. “And I wanted to start close to home, and that was UH.”
After responding to a UH Facebook advertisement looking for LGBTQ Alumni Association board members in 2016, Pel became the board secretary. Two years later, she was elected president.
As president, she acts as co-chair for the UH Red Dinner, an annual fundraising gala that provides scholarships to UH students in the LGBTQ community. Though this year’s Red Dinner is postponed due to COVID-19, Pel remains committed to her students.
The association has sufficient funds for this year, she says, and there are ongoing discussions regarding future funding through more direct fundraising opportunities.
“I hope the organization can continue to serve our LGBTQ community for years to come,” she says.
Pel empowers people both on and off the UH campus. As a middle school humanities teacher, she practices Montessori teaching, a practice based on “self-directed activity, hands-on learning, and collaborative play,” according to the Montessori Northwest website. She tailors her teaching according to each student’s needs and helps them based on who they could become, as opposed to who they are.
“As every kid develops at their own rate, with some students I’m more hands-off, while others need me to be more direct and present,” Pel explains. “Making a kid feel happy, proud, and seen for exactly who they are is important to their learning and growth.”
Pel’s classes have moved online due to the pandemic restrictions, and she teaches only twice a week. Despite their physical distance, she continues to encourage her students.
During one remote-learning session, she asked her students to find two items in their house that represent their culture. She wanted her students to select an object that reminded them of their family and identity, in order to help them realize their uniqueness.
“Teaching is rejuvenating and empowering,” Pel says. “The most rewarding part is seeing a kid maximize their full potential and reach a level of self-actualization [as they] become independent, confident, aware of their own identity, and take pride in exactly who they are.”
Pel is currently a graduate student at the UH College of Education (COE), where she is pursuing a Master of Education degree in curriculum and instruction in social studies/social education. She says she’s grateful for COE and other UH colleges that support the LGBTQ Alumni Association and the robust LGBTQ community on campus.
Most of all, she’s grateful for her father and how his legacy has inspired her to uphold community and identity.
“I live out my father’s legacy every day, and I feel a strong sense of gratitude for our relatives—ancestors who have helped pave the way to help us get to where we are,” she says.
Pel was raised by her Irish-French-American mother and did not have access to her Cambodian relatives until her mid-20s. When she did reach out to those family members, she learned more about her Cambodian roots and her father, Chandara, whom she last saw as a child. He died when she was 18 years old.
Through her relatives, Pel learned that her father had earned a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to emigrate to the U.S., study English at Georgetown University, and later attend the University of Bridgeport in 1974.
While in the United States, he sponsored many relatives who had survived the four-year genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge, the communists who wanted to “create a Cambodian ‘master race’ through social engineering,” according to the History.com website. An educated man, her father helped usher in a generation of Cambodian-Americans and the beginnings of Cambodian communities in America.
Pel says her father’s legacy—as well as Cambodia’s achievements in compelling art and innovative architectural techniques—inspires her to foster a love of community and self in others, which she does as the UH LGBTQ Alumni Association president and as a humanities teacher.
“It’s a powerful legacy he has left for us, and one I intend to uphold,” Pel concludes. “Whether it be my work as a teacher with my students, or living my father’s legacy, that’s my mission in life.”
For more information about the University of Houston LGBTQ Association, visit facebook.com/rainbowcoogs.
This article appears in the May 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.