Story by Tarah Lachmandas
Walking into Gabby Le’s room, the first thing one will see is the wall above her bed, covered from top to bottom with photos. Some of them are of drawings she has done; others are characters from her favorite books and television shows. A collection of photos, brochures, written pieces, and art gathered over the years. In the middle of the photos, a beautiful painting of a woman done by Le. The photos are all scattered and seem to be all over the place, but at a closer look, they have an order to them—similar to her own life.
“Everything is a balance and obviously you can’t put your effort into everything at once,” Le wondered. “I like to think about it like this: in the amount of time that I’ve allowed myself to take on this work, am I putting in 100 percent of my effort.”
Le is a current student at Palomar College and the co-founder of the new That’s On Period Club, which was originally established at Rancho Bernardo High School where she attended. The club isn’t Le’s only focus since she does work in education and art as well.
Le grew up in the Midwest, just outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Growing up in a smaller, close-knit community, it had an impact on her. When she moved to California at age 13, it was a bit of a culture shock. Even though most people see the Midwest as farms and fields, it was socially liberal and inclusive. In Michigan, she knew all of her neighbors, and kids in the neighborhood would go outside and play together until it got dark. Going off and playing on their own without a care in the world, she had an enjoyable childhood, full of no worries or responsibilities which is very different from her life now.
At school, however, she was one of the very few students of East Asian descent. Her father is Vietnamese and her mother is Belarusian. With both her parents being immigrants, it was difficult to be surrounded by kids who couldn’t relate to her. She dealt with racism, but she didn’t realize it was racism until much later.
She moved to Rancho Bernardo five years ago and attended Rancho Bernardo High, which was much more diverse with a significant Asian population. She had friends who looked like her and could mostly relate to. Even being around other Asian people in high school, she still felt inferior to them because she wasn’t highly involved in her own Vietnamese culture.
“I always felt really white in comparison because I wasn’t super affluent in my own community, but there were still things we connected on,” said Le.
While in high school, she was able to start expanding her horizons and got a lot of opportunities based on the things she was passionate about. She was involved in the community at the school, including the ASB to be an active part in her peers’ high school experience.
Le also painted various murals on and off campus because art is something Le has always been passionate about and holds an attachment to all her work. During her sophomore year, her English teacher recommended her to do a TED Talk at an event the high school was hosting: a TEDx conference. She did her talk on community empathy which was a big part of the high school’s diversity.
“We don’t always know what people’s stories are or where they’re coming from, so if we could just be a little bit kinder, the world would be a better place.” said Le.
During this event, Le met one of her closest friends, Bailey Shae, who was a coordinator of the TEDx conference and was the only other undergraduate. Shae said that Le’s speech was “incredible” and really showed her passion in making a difference.
This idea of making the world a better place drives all of the work she does now with That’s On Period Club at Palomar. The club was started by her friend Stephanie Wu to help menstruating women in marginalized and impoverished communities. Le and Wu started the club at their high school in 2020. With the help of the school’s administration, they were able to integrate baskets with pads and tampons in all the bathrooms on campus.
“I remember people remarking that everything Gabby did would look great on college applications, but Gabby never cared about that. She participated in all of these impactful activities because she genuinely cared. She wanted to make a difference then, and still does now,” said Shae.
They hope to change the overall conversation about menstruation and dismantling the stigmas about it. Periods are often seen as unsanitary, which makes young women feel uncomfortable being in public when they are going through them. There is also a lack of education of what actually occurs to a woman during menstruation, which also adds to a lack of availability of feminine products.
“The problem is no better outside of the home, as public bathroom facilities (often designed by men) can be unfit for purpose when it comes to women and girls on their periods. Many of us might take for granted the role which public facilities play in going about our day-to-day lives, but not everyone is fortunate enough to experience this ‘luxury’,” according to an article on the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
They also did some work with an organization called Faraway Friends where they set up donation drives for menstrual products that were then donated to Uganda, which allowed the club to have a global impact, not just a local one. Since they knew people who attended Poway High and Mt. Carmel High, Le and Wu spread their work to other schools and were able to persuade those administrations to start the clubs there as well. All three schools have clubs that continue to work independently.
Le graduated high school in 2021 and was the commencement speaker at her graduation. She decided to attend Palomar since it was the easier choice financially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her first semester of college was spent completely online, but now that classes are in person again, she and Wu are continuing their work with the club at Palomar. Because of the short amount of time they have left on campus, their main mission is to integrate menstrual product baskets in every bathroom at Palomar, as well as having those tough conversations with administration to destigmatize the subject of periods in order to leave some legacy once they’re gone.
Besides working on That’s On Period Club, Le is also an editor for this year’s Bravura Journal. With an interest in writing, Le joined Bravura as a way to expand her horizons and learn new skills. Although Le always thought she would be an art major in college, she is currently an English major at Palomar, with an interest in public affairs. As a book lover, English was something she was always drawn to but also wants to use her experience as an English major to help with her overall activism. She still enjoys her art but primarily does it for fun.
Both ladies chose English professor Leanne Maunu, who has been Le’s British literature professor for the past two semesters, to be their faculty advisor for the club where she helps them coordinate and spread the word about their club meetings.
“Gabby is such a pleasure to have in class! Whether on Zoom last semester or in person this semester, she has always actively contributed to our class discussions in British Literature I and II,” said Maunu.
“It is required to have empathetic educators and administration in order to have those tough conversations and we were really privileged in the community we worked with to have those educators that were willing to listen, and not every community is fortunate to have that so we have to spread our message to those communities as well,” said Le.
Since all public schools are required to have a special education program, Le works as a general classroom aide at Rancho Bernardo High, going into different classrooms to give students extra English and math support. She acquired this position when one of her teachers needed some help during summer school, and Le stuck with it because she loves teaching.
Le also works with a nonprofit organization called Diversify Our Narrative as a curriculum and content writer. It was established by students in 2020 during the pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. The organization works to create diverse curiculums for K-12 schools to change the overall narrative taught in those schools. As a content writer, she creates social media posts for their Instagram and Facebook pages. Le is also on their curriculum counsel to help develop lesson plans for teachers to use.
While Le is passionate about the work Diversify Our Narrative does, she expressed her concerns about having an organization taking place entirely on social media. Although the organization has about 217,000 followers on Instagram, one cannot always be certain that people are actually listening and retaining the information that they put out.
Despite the overwhelming work that she does, she emphasized the importance of being able to hang out with her friends and not constantly work all the time.
“I always make sure I have at least one day off a week where I relax and just do nothing. And I try to hold healthy boundaries with work and school,” Le said, “A lot of what I do, I truly love doing which makes it entirely more enjoyable. I feel empowered in my work and seeing the impact and potential change that’s brought about by what I’m doing gets me through it.”