Philadelphia Principal at buildOn School Reflects on Cultural Identity

Mr. Peou Interview

By Sulaiha Olatunji, buildOn Youth Engagement Zone Manager

buildOn freshman at Philadelphia’s Youth Engagement Zone at Furness High School have been exploring different styles of writing that incorporate issues of coming of age and cultural identity. After reading Sandra Cisneros’ “House on Mango Street” and Sherman Alexi’s “Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian”, students wrote vignettes about their own experiences in the style of these authors, and interviewed their peers at the high school to learn more about their diverse community. The first interview that students conducted was with their principal.

Principal Daniel Peou, a native of Cambodia, has a unique relationship to Furness and South Philadelphia, as well as a deep appreciation for service and global education. Here is some of what he shared with the students.

Freshman in Philadelphia's Youth Engagement Zone practice their interview skills.
Why did you want to work at Furness as a principal?

Furness High School has always held a very special place in my heart. This is the first school I attended in the United States and it is where I first learned English. When I first arrived in America as a Cambodian refugee, I did not speak any English. In fact, I was never afforded the opportunity for any formal education in my native country of Cambodia because of war and civil unrest. It is here in South Philadelphia that I began studying ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) at Furness High School. This is where I met other refugee students from many different countries who also had little or no formal education. We began learning English together and started building friendships across cultures at the same time. I had caring teachers and other staff members who encouraged me to do my best and work hard. I learned so much in my two short years at Furness, but the most important lesson learned was that I was able to dream. I could have dreams of my own. I could make personal choices. I could control my destiny. I actually had ownership of my future. While still attending Furness High School, I started thinking of what I really wanted for my future. Furness provided me with the foundation necessary to dream big and be successful inside and outside the classroom. I am very fortunate to return to Furness High School as its Principal. I hope to continue its excellence of educating all children and giving each student the foundation necessary to achieve their dreams through hard work and perseverance.

Why is community service and global education important to you?

I am elated to have buildOn working with the staff and students of Furness High School. I believe that students need to understand the importance of serving each other, their school, their community and the world. buildOn helps students understand that a world exists beyond their own neighborhood. It gives students the opportunity to think of themselves as parts of a global community that helps each other. It also shows students the interconnectedness of our world today. buildOn helps students understand and experience first-hand the concepts of volunteerism, service, compassion and pride. It helps students develop leadership skills and a sense of belonging to their school and their community. It also provides the opportunity for some students to volunteer in the rebuilding or building of schools in (developing countries).

The Youth Engagement Zone at Furness High School is largely funded by Aberdeen Charitable Foundation, making a meaningful impact in the Philadelphia area by supporting our programming. Learn more about buildOn’s Afterschool Programs here.