By KAREN NEOH
REALISING from young that I was and will always be “the champion of the underdogs”, I have often gravitated to people who have inspired me to persevere and stay on the path less travelled.
One of the first people I met upon arriving in Cambodia, on a new quest to work with women and children who had been trafficked and abused, was Laura Cordisco Tsai – a wonderful human being who quickly became a firm friend.
Tsai came from humble beginnings, and took charge of her own life from very young to be the person she is today.
Her first residence was in a trailer, and she started working during her childhood to save money for college. Tsai paid her way through college at Brown University by working multiple jobs.
“I am married and have a sweet elderly dog whom we adopted last year. I’m obsessed with Thai food, and I love for my food to be as spicy as possible! My favourite meal is papaya salad (spicy) and sticky rice.
“In my spare time, I enjoy trying to learn to cook Thai food, going to the opera, and spending time with my family,” she shares.
It is with great honour that I share with you her story.
1. Tell us about yourself. Was it a challenge blazing your own trail and choosing to pursue your Bachelors, Masters and then doctoral degree?
I am a social worker by training. My work focuses on providing social services to people who have been trafficked – particularly services that help them start a new life once they have escaped human trafficking.
While working at non-profits that provide services to them, I noticed that there weren’t enough programmes to help them find safe employment upon escaping human trafficking and returning to their communities.
Due to lack of alternative employment options, I saw many returning to the same exploitative working situations that they suffered before.
I made it my personal mission to increase access to alternative employment opportunities for people who had been trafficked.
This personal mission ultimately led me to pursue a PhD, as I wanted to further hone my skills and conduct research that teaches practitioners about the best practices in economic empowerment programming for trafficked people.
It was challenging forging my own path and it was often a lonely road. I didn’t have any mentors who were specifically doing the kind of work that I was interested in.
However, I often reminded myself that in order for new solutions to be developed, someone has to walk a lonely path to get there. If we do what we’ve always done, the field won’t progress.
2 You have given much attention and devoted many years to different communities in Asia. Could you share with us what prompted your decision to live and work in Asia?
Originally, I moved to Thailand because I was interested in working in the area of human trafficking. Thailand is one of the worldwide hubs for human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking.
However, once I lived there, I fell in love with the country. I fell in love with working in Asia.
Since then, my love for living in Asia and my love for my work has solidified my commitment to working in Asia long term.
3 Did you play a role in helping women and children who had been trafficked, take charge of their own lives? Could you share what the key points you asked them to focus on are?
People who have been trafficked have often had their trust broken by many people in their lives.
Many have not only faced abuse in their trafficking history, but have faced other forms of ill treatment – including abuse in their own families.
From my experience, part of leadership development in working with them is supporting them in being able to dream again and have hope for their futures.
When someone has been abused and exploited in many ways for so long, it can be difficult to believe that they deserve good things or that they can achieve their goals.
Restoring hope, belief in themselves, and supporting people in daring to set a personal vision for themselves is a key first step in leadership development within this population.
4 Do you have instances of inspiring leadership (community leaders, the women) you would like to share?
There are many examples. One of the non-governmental organisations that I helped launch in the Philippines has a college scholarship programme for people who have been trafficked. Among their clientele, the most popular college major is social work.
It is very inspiring for me to see people who have faced such abuse themselves strive to use their lives to help and uplift others.
Many of them are the first person in their families to graduate from high school, and it takes considerable dedication and personal resolve to graduate from college – much less to pursue a career that involves significant self-sacrifice and is often not highly valued in society.
5 Who is your role model? Would you like to share how that person has impacted your life?
My mother is my personal role model. She raised me as a single parent.
Although we had very limited financial means, she always ensured that I went to high quality schools and always encouraged me to pursue my dreams – even when it meant doing things that no one in my family had ever done (like moving away for college, pursuing a PhD, or moving to Asia).
She also works in social services – particularly with children who have experienced child abuse and neglect, or who have witnessed violent crimes.
She inspired me through her commitment to serve others and through her work ethic.
One of her favourite quotations is from Martin Luther King, Jr., “After we’ve discovered our life’s work, we should set out to do that work so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it better.”
She truly exemplifies this quotation. She is always striving to get better at what she does so that she can serve more people, and I try to follow her model.
Message for our readers:
“I would like to say that every one of us has unique gifts, talents and knowledge that can be used constructively in society. Serving others doesn’t require working in a helping profession full-time. Follow your passion and experience and be creative in finding ways to use your passions for the good of others.”
Karen admires leaders who choose to work hard to overcome their personal challenges, and who go on to selflessly build lives and other future leaders. For more inspiring stories and leadership content, visit www.leaderonomics.com