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Two tongues, one goal: learning

The Laotian-American community celebrated the third annual Students Awards Night Saturday with dance, speeches and gifts.

The event honored 100 Laotian college and high school graduates from Pinellas County and was attended by Laotian students from throughout the Tampa Bay area, including Polk County. It is designed to help bring the area's Laotian community together, while raising the profile of higher education by recognizing successful students.

"We want to praise successful students of the year and recognize parents for their efforts in promoting higher education," said Chantho Vorasarn, founder of the student award program and president of the Laotian-American Association of Florida.

Thomas Phetsadasack, Laotian educational committee director, thanked the audience of about 400 who gathered at the Plumbers and Steam Fitters Hall, 4020 80th Ave. N. He praised students for making the event possible.

"What makes this celebration special is that it was organized by students," he said. "Also, we represent what we believe in our community and the hope we brought to America and that is, we want to succeed."

The ceremony, conducted in both English and Laotian, started with The Star-Spangled Banner and reading of the educational report. Then, Vorasarn and St. Petersburg City Council member Connie Kone presented students with colorfully wrapped gifts: personal stereos. Many students greeted them with the formal Laotian salutation of hands placed together and a slight bow.

"It makes me feel special that our hard work and achievement can be recognized," said Sone Lo, a pre-dental student at St. Petersburg Junior College.

The night was a blend of Laotian and American customs. While some guests chose gowns, suits or jeans and T-shirts, young students wore the sinhmai, the traditional long, slim skirt spun from silk. They performed the graceful Laotian national dance after the presentation to the music of the Mekong, a popular Laotian band. Couples circled the dance floor using the slow, short steps and graceful hand movements typical of the dance.

Against a colorful background of balloons and posters of congratulations for the Class of '95, the food included Laotian meatballs with peanut sauce, fried noodles, pickled pork and rice.

"It makes me feel special to be recognized here tonight," said Joneny Phongsackdy, an international affairs student at Florida State University. "It brings the community together."

But students were not the only ones praised. Addressing the enthusiastic audience, Phetsadasack praised parents for postponing their education and working two jobs to send their children to school. "The dream you came for to this country is being realized through us," he said. "We thank you for your support."

The event was sponsored by the Laotian-American Associations of Florida, the Laotian-American Association of St. Petersburg, the South East Asian Christian Ministry of St. Petersburg and the Laotian-American Association of Polk County.