The Community Writer

August 31, 2017

Liu’s refugee roots helps veterans tell their stories 

Video by Mei-Ling Shaw Williams

As a Vietnamese refugee coming to the United States in the late 1970s, Rossina Zamora Liu never dreamt that years later, she would be helping veterans tell their stories.

As a child, Liu says she felt like an outsider, noting that there was a socio-political shame attached to being a Vietnamese refugee. Before working with veterans, a prevailing stereotype of these individuals instilled a fear in Rossina - a fear that was nearly palpable and caused her to hold her breath with anxious tension as she passed homeless veterans living on the streets of Washington D.C. during trips between Virginia and Maryland.

“I remember being very frightened of veterans because of the narrative around the Vietnam conflict. And, in particular, about Vietnamese people—that we were the bad guys in black pajamas.,” says Rossina. “I never thought in a million years that I would work with them because I thought that they would hate me.”

Helping veterans is exactly what Liu does as a clinical assistant professor of language, literacy, and culture. In the fall of 2010, Liu founded the Community Stories Writing Workshop at Shelter House in Iowa City. Through a partnership between the Iowa City VA Health Care System and Shelter House, veterans, at the time, were able to stay at Shelter House for up to two years. This means many longtime participants in the workshop were veterans, explains Liu. In addition to her work with the VA and Shelter House, Rossina directs a writing workshop at the Linda R. Baker Teacher Leader Center at the UI College of Education. This workshop is facilitated by a veteran graduate of the world-renowned Iowa Writers Workshop.

After founding the Community Stories Writing Workshop at Shelter House and encountering veterans who treated her with kindness and respect, Rossina saw that her fear was unfounded. There was an opportunity to exchange deeply personal stories with veterans.

Today, Liu has just finished serving a two-year term as a faculty fellow with the UI Provost’s Office of Outreach & Engagement. During her fellowship, she worked to expand the Community Stories Writing Workshop to the Iowa City VA Health Care Systems. Each spring and fall, she leads an 8-week art-based writing workshop for veterans participating in an educational and community re-integration program through the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center. Along with veterans, each workshop session includes a mental health counselor and a graduate student facilitator from the Art Department and/or the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This upcoming year, Rossina hopes to also include graduate students from the Language, Literacy, and Culture and Counseling Psychology programs in the College of Education.

“I was privy to the emotional truths that are often absent from popular sources...That has humbled me in very meaningful ways.” 

- Rossina Liu 

“Through the intimate exchanges of drafts, and hearing veterans tell their stories, I was privy to the emotional truths that are often absent from popular sources, be they textbooks about the Vietnam Conflict or newspaper articles about veterans in general,” Rossina says. “That has humbled me in very meaningful ways.”

One of the many purpose of these workshops is to help veterans re-integrate into their community from a place of strength. This group is different from the workshop at the Shelter House because it incorporates other forms of art as therapy for veterans such as painting.

By writing about their lives, veterans are able to understand their past experiences and why it may be causing them distress today, says Liu. She says that by expressing trauma through the arts, veterans can find meaning by focusing on their personal strengths. Expressing themselves in this way can help veterans re-integrate into society, says Liu.

This year, Rossina is collaborating with William Ming Liu and the Counseling Psychology Program to design a study that examines the psychological, social, and emotional impact of art and writing in spaces like the VA for veterans and military affiliates. William is professor in the psychological and quantitative foundations and the program coordinator of the Counseling Psychology program in the UI College of Education.

The cross-disciplinary study involves writing, fine arts and counseling psychology, says Rossina. Counseling psychology graduate students will then become co-facilitators at all workshop sites involved in the proposed study. The study will also look at how graduate students in counseling psychology, education, and the arts make sense of their experiences in these spaces to better understand their career disciplines, says Rossina.

“We’re priming them to think about public engagement after their studies,” says Rossina.

Rossina teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in language, literacy, and culture. She says her engagement endeavors in various writing workshops with veterans play a role in how she teaches the courses she teaches.

“My public engagement informs my understanding of all the theoretical framework of what I’ve been exposed to and what I teach,” says Rossina. “We know one thing and then we see it in practice.”

Rossina notes that she has worked with veterans who are extremely literate and express themselves through the written word in incredible, moving ways. She says these individuals do not conform to negative stereotypes of those experiencing homelessness.

“I’m not hoping to end homelessness,” says Rossina. “I’m not hoping to end mental illness. We can’t. But we can certainly participate as a community, working with each other to draw out strengths.”

Read more from the 2016-17 College of Education Annual Report.