Joanne Kwan '13 (left) and Anastasya Uskov '11, above the village of Dimen, China

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Student-Faculty Project Helps a Remote Chinese Village—and Earns Design Award

Katie SweeneyJul 17, 2013

Imagine traveling to a beautiful mountain village in China-a place so remote that it's been isolated from the world for centuries. You meet the villagers and not only learn about their traditional way of life, but also help to preserve it for future generations. 

That was the opportunity realized by two Graphic Design students, Anastasya Uskov '11 and Joanne Kwan '13, through the Kam Minority Heritage Project, a unique student-faculty collaboration led by Visual Arts Assistant Professor Marie Lee

The project, which took place in Dimen, China, in the summers of 2010 and 2011, earned a 2013 SEED Honorable Mention Award for Excellence in Public Interest Design. Selected by DesignCorps and the SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design) Network®, the awards recognize projects that best incorporate social consciousness, community outreach and sustainability into their designs. 

"At many schools, it would usually be graduate students working on a project like this," says Lee. "But our students at Pacific are very driven and mature. They were able to do work that I could only hope graduate students could do." 

An Endangered Culture  

Situated deep in the mountains of Guizhou province in China, Dimen is inhabited by the Kam minority people and was long isolated from modern life. 

In recent years, though, many young people have left the village-and often their children-behind to work or study in mainstream China. This allows them to send much-needed funds home to Dimen, but it's threatened the village's unique arts and customs, which were not written down, with extinction. 

During the two summer trips, the Pacific Visual Arts team learned and meticulously documented the intricate craft traditions of the Dimen matriarchs, including their processes for making paper and creating "Kam gold"-a brilliant indigo dye. 

Uskov, who participated in both trips, also worked with middle school children, providing them with disposable cameras to photograph their families and daily lives. 

"Without a doubt, this project was the highlight of my college education," says Uskov, who recently completed her second year at Pacific McGeorge School of Law, where she is a Kennedy Scholar. "It was such an immersive experience, where we were interacting with the culture in a very personal way." 

'Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance' 

Kwan, who participated in the second trip, interviewed teenagers and young adults regarding their feelings about trying to assimilate into mainstream Chinese culture. An illustrator, she created a graphic novel, Their Then and Now, based on their dreams to build a better future-but remain connected to their past. 

At the time, she had just completed her sophomore year at Pacific. 

"This was an amazing opportunity to use my design skills and see a completely different culture and environment," Kwan says. "I looked at it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance." 

The Pacific team, which worked in partnership with the Dimen Dong Cultural Eco Museum, also collected local customs, songs and folklore. Jennifer Little, Associate Professor of Visual Arts, documented village life through photography during the first trip. 

Lee is compiling the team's work into a book and film, which will be given to the museum and made available for researchers, visitors and villagers. 

In addition, she created a visual identity for Dimen and designed packaging, a logo and website to support the efforts of the village cooperative in selling organic rice and artisan crafts in China and abroad. 

Lessons for a Lifetime 

The project was funded by multiple Pacific programs, including the Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship, the Rupley Church Grant for International Understanding, the Eberhardt Research Grant and the Scholarly/Artistic Activity Grant. 

Meanwhile, this summer, the university's Powell Scholars are traveling to Dimen to teach English to local schoolchildren. 

Uskov and Kwan say their experience in Dimen taught them lessons that will last a lifetime. 

"I would encourage all students to travel internationally, and Pacific provides so many hands-on opportunities for that," Uskov says. "Coming home afterward, it really does change you. You start to reflect on yourself and the world in a whole new way."