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Development of a culturally specific career exploration group for urban Chinese immigrant youth.

A rapid increase in the number of Chinese immigrants and the specific challenges faced by low-income Chinese immigrant youth attending urban schools warrant culturally sensitive school-based interventions and services. However, research and services are limited for this population because of cultural biases in traditional career theories and the "model minority" myth suggesting that Asian students are excelling. The authors developed and implemented a culturally specific career exploration group for low-income Chinese immigrant youth to address their career concerns with respect to multiple social and cultural factors and to provide social support. Implications for future program development and research are provided.


The workforce in the United States has become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. The 2000 U.S. census reports that individuals 18 years of age or younger were more likely to identify with two or more racial/ethnic minority affiliations (U.S. Bureau of the Census, n.d.-a, n.d.-b). The greatest increase in number was among Asian American/Pacific Islander and Latino/Hispanic populations; both higher immigration rates and fertility rates may have contributed to the rapid growth in these racial groups (Fouad & Byars-Winston, 2005).

The growing number of immigrants and racial/ethnic minorities joining the workforce warrant context- or culturally sensitive career counseling, which acknowledges the impact of clients' family context, cultural values, and social environments on their career behavior (Pope, 2003). However, traditional career theories are typically normed on White middle-class American men and emphasize individualistic culture (i.e., reverence for autonomy; equality of vocational opportunity; freedom and economic affluence to make a career choice; linear, progressive, and rational career making and development progress); consequently, these theories often ignore the sociopolitical realities faced by many racial/ethnic minorities (Carter & Cook, 1992; Cook, Heppner, & O'Brien, 2002) and contradict their worldviews and career experiences (Fouad & Bingham, 1995).

For instance, many recent Asian immigrants encounter employment discrimination because of their limited English fluency. Despite their previous professional or career status, they are deterred from entering the mainstream economy where English is an essential tool of communication. As a result, they may become unemployed or underemployed or be forced to find a job in their ethnic enclave economy that is below their previously acquired skill or education level (Chow, 1999). In this case, their career paths do not necessarily follow a linear, progressive trend nor are the paths based on their educational level, work experience, or freedom to choose whatever they want to pursue. Instead, their career paths are affected by their immigration experience, limited English proficiency, and cultural barriers.

To acknowledge cultural diversity and take into account the worldviews, sociocultural realities, life experiences, and multiple identities of clients, the social ecological view of work and career asserts that individuals' career behavior does not develop in a vacuum but rather through interactions between individuals and their social systems (Cook et al., 2002). This theoretical perspective is particularly important in understanding the career exploration experiences of racial/ethnic minorities, whose career discourse is often disrupted by powerful and pervasive institutional barriers (e.g., racism, discrimination at work, limited access to educational opportunities and labor markets) and whose work decisions are often shaped by their family's worldview and cultural values (Fouad & Brown, 2000).

The influence of family may be especially salient in Asian communities, which emphasize interdependence and group reliance. Familial influence often entails attending to collective, familial expectation and making decisions that are congruent with that expectation (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998). For example, an Asian American woman who wishes to pursue a career in politics may be discouraged by her family because of the racial and gender segregation of the occupation. Her parents may think that what is required for becoming a successful politician (e.g., assertiveness, outspokenness) in the United States is contradictory to what is valued in Asian culture (e.g., modesty, politeness). Hence, career counseling for racial/ethnic minorities is more effective and culturally relevant if it examines the intertwining role of both individual and contextual factors as well as acknowledges the importance of cultural and familial views on these clients' career behavior and decision making.

In this article, we (a) discuss the emerging needs of low-income, urban Chinese immigrant youth for culturally sensitive career guidance and services; (b) examine the development of a school-based Career Exploration Development and Resources (CEDAR) group for this particular youth population; and (c) provide a summary of implications for future program development and multicultural counselor training.

Barriers and Career Challenges Faced by Urban Chinese Immigrant Youth

Currently, there are an estimated 13.5 million Asian Americans living in the United States, or 5% of the total population. Of the Asian Americans living in the United States, 63% were born in Asian countries (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2005). Specifically, Chinese immigrants from mainland China compose 11% of all immigrants from Asian countries, and they were the second largest immigrant group among all groups admitted to the United States in the past decade (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, n.d.). In many cases, individuals from the Chinese immigrant group entering the United States during the 1990s brought their children and families.

One of the primary reasons Asians immigrate to the United States is to seek better educational and career opportunities (Trueba, Cheng, & Ima, 1993). However, once in the United States, they encounter a host of issues, including racism and discrimination, acculturative stress associated with immigration, linguistic barriers, and intergenerational conflicts within their family (R. M. Lee & Liu, 2001; Yeh & Inose, 2002). For instance, many Asian immigrant youth endure stigmatization of having an accent when speaking English (Yeh & Inose, 2002). They also experience cultural adjustment difficulties such as culture shock and an inability to be accepted by the peer culture (Yeh, 2003) while at the same time endorsing concerns about their competencies to operate across cultures in both academic and social domains (Sodowsky & Lai, 1997).

Moreover, many urban Chinese immigrant youth struggle with a lower socioeconomic status (SES). Most of the recent Asian immigrants, including the Chinese immigrants, tend to reside in urban settings such as New York and Los Angeles, with only a small percentage living in suburban or rural areas (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2005). In other words, their children are more likely to attend urban public schools that are limited in resources. A large percentage of Chinatown residents make minimal wages and live below the poverty line (Trueba et al., 1993). These low-income parents may discourage their children from pursuing education and careers that require substantial investment of time and money so that their children could begin working sooner and provide for the family (Leong & Gim, 1995). Some of the immigrant youth work long hours at the expense of their schoolwork (Zhou, 2003) and are more likely to fail academically and drop out of school. Like many poor and working-class immigrants, these youth may not perceive making a career decision as a form of self-expression or an active choice, but rather as a compromise between the opportunities available to them and the skills they can bring to the job--a practical means to earn a living (Blustein et al., 2002). In the long run, these low-income youth may lack the skills and knowledge to explore their career options. Additionally, language barriers further disengage these youth from the larger society, because they circumscribe their vocational choices in the mainstream economy and limit their location of work to Chinatown or other ethnic enclaves (Chang, 2003).

In addition, many recent Chinese immigrant parents lack time and English proficiency to provide guidance on their children's schoolwork. These parents may also rely on their children for interpretation and managing daily chores, given that their children tend to acculturate and acquire English fluency more rapidly (Leong & Gim, 1995). These cultural conditions may decrease parental self-confidence and place a tremendous burden on immigrant children. As a result of the shifting of roles, immigrant youth must negotiate competing priorities and pressures in managing their schoolwork and fulfilling family obligations (Fuligni, Yip, & Tseng, 2002).

Despite the rapid increase in the number of Chinese immigrants entering the United States and the unique challenges faced by low-income, urban Chinese immigrant youth, there has been a dearth of research and services targeted at this population. Past research that focused on Chinese immigrant youth per se has mostly involved students from Hong Kong and Taiwan, who are more likely to be middle class; consequently, the results may not be generalizable to low-income, urban Chinese immigrant youth (Chao, 1994). Moreover, the "model minority" myth--that Asians are excelling and having fewer mental health problems (S. J. Lee, 1994)--may negate the career challenges faced by this population. For instance, many recent immigrant students need help from bilingual counselors to explain job search and college application procedures in their native language, but most urban schools experience a shortage of bilingual staff to assist immigrant students on these matters and many teachers and counselors may not be prepared to address these youth's educational and career concerns within their acculturative context (Yeh et al., 2002).

As previously discussed, the social ecological perspective of work and career asserts that individual career behavior emerges from a lifelong dynamic interaction between the individual and multiple sociocultural environments and interpersonal layers. In conceptualizing interventions for low-income, urban Chinese immigrant youth from a social ecological perspective (Cook et al., 2002), school-based career programs could serve as an important tool at the microsystem or immediate interpersonal level for these students. These programs could provide immigrant students an extension into adulthood and help broaden their perceptions about the world of work in the United States through what they learn from respected role models, such as career counselors. Other interventions could focus on empowering clients to explore their environments through education and support (e.g., teaching career exploration and intercultural communication skills to students; Cook et al., 2002). Career counselors may also serve as advocates for students who have the potential but lack the ability to communicate that potential during school-to-work transition, such as adapting intervention strategies to the language and worldviews of immigrant youth that will facilitate their career development (Brown, 2000). Hence, the purpose of the career exploration group described in this article was to offer career and educational resources for Chinese immigrant youth, promote their knowledge and skills, and provide a culturally relevant context for them to discuss career concerns and establish mutual support through their shared struggles and experiences.

Career Intervention in Context: A Culturally Specific Career Exploration Group

In this section, we discuss how the sociocultural realities, various contextual factors, and cultural and familial values were taken into account to inform the goals, structure, role of counselor, content, and process of a culturally specific career intervention program, called the CEDAR group, for low-income, urban Chinese immigrant youth's career development.

During the academic year of 2004-2005, CEDAR was developed for low-income Chinese immigrant youth in an urban high school in the lower east side of Manhattan. The 2003-2004 New York City Public School Annual School Report indicated that the school consisted of 82.9% Asian students and 72.8% recent immigrant students (i.e., students who immigrated to the United States within the past 3 years). Among those recent immigrant students, the majority were born in mainland China and the rest in Hong Kong, Macau, and other Asian countries. All students (100%) were over age for their grade level. Many of them were directly transferred from high schools in China or indirectly from other high schools in New York City; they were held back one or two grades because of their linguistic barrier. Eighty-three percent of the students were eligible for free lunch, indicating a lower SES. Flyers about the CEDAR program were posted on school bulletin boards and distributed in some classes, mostly targeting 12th graders' classes. Recruitment was conducted through students' voluntary participation and guidance counselors' recommendations.

Group Goals

As previously mentioned, effective career counseling for low-income, urban Chinese immigrant youth should incorporate their sociocultural and economic contexts, vital life experiences, and cultural and familial influences into problem conceptualization and intervention planning (Byars-Winston & Fouad, 2006). It is also essential to develop culturally and linguistically sensitive strategies to address their career concerns and help them navigate the U.S. educational system and labor market. Hence, the goals of CEDAR include (a) discussing with participants how their cultural values, familial expectations, and experiences with immigration and cultural adjustment difficulties may affect their career exploration and decision making; (b) promoting their knowledge of their career interests, skills, abilities, priorities, and different career options, as well as teaching them career exploration skills to prepare for their postsecondary transition; and (c) helping them identify potential barriers and resources to overcome challenges.

Group Structure

There were two CEDAR groups per semester from the semester of fall 2004 through fall 2005 (a total of six groups). Each group was held once a week for 1.5 hours and was facilitated by a bilingual group facilitator, after school, for 8 consecutive weeks.

Literature suggests that a group counseling modality provides an effective structure for working with Asian clients (Chung, 2003; Pope, 1999), who tend to be collectivist and interdependent, and a prior study showed that a career education group could promote Chinese college students' career certainty (Peng, 2001). Furthermore, a previous study with Chinese adolescents suggested that students who were involved in a peer friendship network had better socioemotional and academic adjustments than did students who were socially isolated or who were only involved in a dyadic friendship (Liu & Chen, 2003). The group format of CEDAR not only could provide a safe haven for Chinese immigrant youth to share their educational and career concerns but could also reduce students' sense of alienation and promote their social skills and help seeking from one another, because a peer friendship network may provide greater resources as well as cultural validation while simultaneously requiring a higher level of collaboration and communication between participants to maintain group cohesion. Furthermore, Asian clients tend to prefer a more directive and problem-solving, as opposed to an open-ended and ambiguous, approach in group counseling (Chen, 1995; Chung, 2003). Thus, the CEDAR groups in the current study emphasized the use of structure and didactics, provided concrete information via syllabus and handouts, and gave more directive guidance.

Role of Facilitators

A key component in the effective cross-cultural counseling of Asians is to establish trust and credibility (S. Sue & Zane, 1987). Many Asian clients tend to expect the group facilitator to serve multiple roles, such as being an adviser, a role model, an authority, or an expert who demonstrates solid professional qualifications (Chung, 2003). They also expect the facilitator to possess leadership skills to provide directions and guidance (Chen, 1995).

The two facilitators (first and second authors) for the CEDAR groups were senior doctoral students in a multicultural-oriented counseling psychology program who had received extensive fieldwork training in career counseling with diverse student populations. In addition, one facilitator (the first author) was trilingual (fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English), and the other was bilingual in Mandarin and English. Both were bicultural and had resided in both Chinese or Taiwanese and American societies. Similar to the immigrant youth, the two facilitators had personally undergone cultural adjustment and experienced stress related to living between cultures as Chinese American students in the United States. Moreover, in a required course for their doctoral degree, the facilitators had gone through an in-depth analysis of their own racial/ethnic identities, worldviews, prejudices, and biases to become aware of issues related to racism, discrimination, privilege, and oppression. Hence, their credentials and cross-cultural experience not only allowed them to provide guidance and teach career exploration skills to the CEDAR participants but also helped them to identify with the specific challenges associated with the immigration and acculturation process. A role model with similar migration and cultural adjustment experiences may inspire the participants to overcome linguistic, academic, and interpersonal challenges in negotiating different cultural norms and expectations.

Group Process and Content

Given the limited English proficiency of these recent immigrant youth, language issues must be given primary consideration in the counseling process (Brown, 2000). CEDAR groups were conducted in participants' native dialect to reduce linguistic barriers and anxiety in articulating their feelings and thoughts, as well as to promote their willingness to engage in the dialogue regarding their career exploration. Although all participants could understand Mandarin, the official language of China, about 40% of the participants preferred to speak or express themselves in Cantonese dialect. Hence, every semester, there was one CEDAR group that was conducted in Mandarin and the other group in Cantonese.

In addition, counselors must bear in mind the appropriate intercultural communication style in working with culturally diverse students and be sensitive to issues relating to self-disclosure (Brown, 2000). The content of the group should incorporate the sociocultural realities, barriers, and challenges presented by the Chinese immigrant youth participants and address their career concerns in a culturally relevant manner that will facilitate work toward the group goals. The following provides a sample of the 8-week CEDAR program and a description of each session, which included discussions on the role of various cultural, social, and familial factors in the Chinese immigrant youth's career exploration and decision making.

Session 1: Welcome and Introduction

The first session was an orientation session. Because many Asian students may feel uncomfortable with disclosing feelings in public (Chung, 2003) and may not participate verbally out of respect for the group facilitator and because of a perception that the role of a group member is to stay quiet and follow the leader (Yu & Gregg, 1993), it was important for the CEDAR facilitators to create a trusting and safe environment by reiterating the objectives, structure, and rules of the group (e.g., confidentiality, attendance, commitment to completing exercises) so as to provide a road map for the participants. Moreover, the facilitators used a few interactive games to help participants socialize with other members and encourage them to take part in group activities.

Session 2: Knowledge of Interests, Values, Abilities, and Aspirations

The second session aimed to assess participants' awareness and promote their knowledge of their own career interests, values, abilities, and aspirations. Participants completed the skills and values exercise sheet developed by the facilitators, which asked them to rank their skill level in various realms (e.g., organization, communication, creativity) and to prioritize various aspects of their life when making a career decision, such as income, recognition, stability, and time with family. Then, participants listed three occupations they were most interested in pursuing if there were no external constraints and discussed the external constraints they were facing that might foreclose those career options. Many participants identified language barrier, family's expectations, and concern for making a stable income as external constraints on their career decision making, which were further discussed in Session 5 along with other perceived barriers.

The discussion on how these immigrant youth negotiate their own career interests with their family members' expectations and their family obligations was essential within their cultural context. Traditional Asian culture emphasizes collectivism over individualism and interdependence over independence. Collectivists tend to be concerned about the consequences of their behavior on their in-group members (Triandis, 1989), and individuals with interdependent self-construal tend to define self in relation to close others in their social contexts, attend to others' feelings, and assume this process will be reciprocated by their close others (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). It is likely that recent Chinese immigrant youth take parents' and elders' expectations into consideration when making a career decision. Therefore, it was important for the facilitator to explore with the participants the values and conceptions of work held by their family members and close others and to ask participants to conduct a family career genogram (Ponterotto, Rivera, & Sueyoshi, 2000) for further discussion. Participants were asked to interview their family members on their career choice and factors influencing their decision, as well as these family members' expectations on the participant's career development.

Sessions 3 and 4: Role of Family and Experience of Immigration

In Session 3, members brought back their family career genogram. They worked in pairs and interviewed each other about the patterns they identified in their family members' career choices. Participants also discussed how their family members' expectations had shaped their own career aspirations and decision making. Despite their lower SES and the urgent need to make money, many participants endorsed the traditional Asian values on educational achievement from their families (Kim, 1997) and felt pressure to succeed in school. There may be a hope within these immigrant families that the next generation can "do better" and make it to the next level of SES by going to college and speaking fluent English, as opposed to working in an ethnic enclave like Chinatown. Therefore, some parents are willing to sacrifice income by encouraging their children to pursue higher education. Being aware of the great sacrifices their families have made to come to the United States for their education, some immigrant youth may want to attain academic accomplishments and make a career choice out of a sense of family obligation.

Participants also discussed the stress associated with their immigration experience and the shifting of roles within their family because of language barriers. Many participants became the interpreter for their family and took care of daily chores while simultaneously managing their own pressure to excel academically. Therefore, in Session 4, the group members brainstormed strategies that would help them to negotiate and balance the competing priorities between their educational and family obligations and role-played how they might communicate their concerns with their family members.

At the end of Session 4, participants were asked to independently conduct some research on applying for college or a job. They were asked to either locate a job want ad in a field of their interest or find the admission requirements for a college they may consider applying to in the future. Facilitators distributed a handout with tips on research strategies as well as newspaper and Web site information. The purpose of this assignment was to promote participants' awareness of available career resources and teach them basic research skills.

Session 5: Guest Speakers, Postsecondary Education Transition, and Perceived Barriers

This session focused on understanding participants' future plans--that is, their postsecondary education transition. Participants were divided into smaller groups and discussed with their peers how the college and job information they found was related to their future plan. The facilitators then responded to any questions or concerns participants may have had with regard to their career exploration. Participants then filled out the Perceptions of Educational Barriers (PEB; McWhirter, 1997) scale. The PEB scale identifies potential barriers (e.g., racial/sexual discrimination, financial concerns, teacher support, study skills, peer pressure) to post-secondary education as perceived by high school students.

During the second half of Session 5, two alumni who previously graduated from the school were invited to speak about their postsecondary educational experiences and their adjustment to college life. Then, participants were organized into two small groups, each attended by a guest speaker, to continue to discuss their concerns and perceived barriers. Each group came up with a list of resources and people to consult with or talk to when they encounter career barriers.

Cook et al. (2002) suggested that career counselors and other people in the clients' sociocultural system could be important role models. The more competent the role models are in performing various occupational tasks, the more likely it is for the clients to assume that those diverse roles are also accessible to them. Hence, access to role models such as alumni who come from a similar ethnic and socioeconomic background might be particularly helpful and encouraging for low-income, urban Chinese immigrants to learn about different education and vocational opportunities, avenues to pursue their career aspirations, as well as skills to balance their work and family obligations.

Session 6: Role of Racism and Sexism at Work

Previous studies indicated that racial and ethnic discrimination at work and limited job opportunities could contribute to reduced career aspirations and expectations as well as motivation for school and career success among urban school minority youth (Constantine, Erikson, Banks, & Timberlake, 1998). Moreover, gender differences were observed in immigrants' career behaviors. For instance, young Asian American women, especially among the immigrant generation, attain a high level of education more quickly than do their male counterparts (Brandon, 1991). Yet the traditional patriarchal structure in Asian culture and the stereotypic image of Asian American women as exotic, submissive, and passive held in U.S. society may lead them to circumscribe their range of career exploration and choices (Leong & Gim, 1995).

Hence, it is important to provide a space for participants to discuss the impact of various contextual factors in their career exploration and to process feelings and thoughts about discrepant and even invalidating information on minority or immigrant youth. Several case scenarios that involve racial or gender bias at the workplace were created for small-group discussion. Participants were asked to identify the issues in the case study and discuss what they would do if they were in that situation. Because many participants may not have this type of forum to openly discuss their thoughts and reactions in school or at home, a case study helped to initiate a dialogue regarding these prevalent issues.

Moreover, the use of case scenarios was less intimidating than asking participants to recall a personal experience with racial or gender discriminations and more congruent with Asians' concern with "loss of face" in publicly disclosing their negative feelings (Yeh & Huang, 1996). Incorporating a discussion on systematic barriers and challenges in the curriculum of a school-based program could also be a way to take personal action against racism and other forms of oppressions, as well as to educate others to value diversity and multiculturalism (D. W. Sue, 2003).

Session 7: Skills Building--Resume Writing, College Application Essay Writing, and Financial Aid Resources

Session 7 aimed to provide hands-on information on the college or job application process, resume writing, and financial aid resources. The facilitators presented information on various types of financial aid (e.g., scholarship, grants, loans) available to high school students and invited participants and their parents to attend a financial aid workshop at school, which was also organized by the facilitators, to learn more details. The facilitators then passed out handouts on tips and the format for writing a job resume and a college application essay and demonstrated to members how to write a resume in session. Participants were asked to list their strengths, interests, and educational and work experience in session, then go home and prepare a draft of a resume or write the first two paragraphs of a college application essay.

Session 8: Termination and Presentation of Certificate

This session aimed to consolidate the issues that had been explored during the course of the program. The facilitators reviewed the resumes or college application essays participants brought in and discussed the next steps in their career and college exploration. Then, the group members processed their thoughts and feelings about the CEDAR program.

Researchers have suggested that social support is a key element in promoting adaptive attitudes about self in school and work settings among youth (Kenny, Blustein, Chaves, Grossman, & Gallagher, 2003). The group facilitators assisted participants in strengthening their relational environment by identifying mentors in their life, such as alumni who previously graduated from their high school; their parents, friends, teachers, and counselors; and other resources in the community who are willing to support them in their career planning. The facilitators also reviewed with participants on how to conduct research on academic and career resources. These interventions--across multiple layers of urban Chinese immigrant youth's sociocultural context--would benefit them in accessing their social supports (Kenny et al., 2003) and enhancing their school engagement, continuation, and success (Constantine et al., 1998).

This session also concluded the CEDAR program. The facilitator presented a graduation certificate to all participants to commend their participation and completion of the CEDAR program.


This school-based, culturally specific career intervention provided a unique platform for these urban Chinese immigrant youth to address career or cultural adjustment concerns in their immediate social context. Schools are a critical context in understanding immigrant students' experience with regard to race, SES, and linguistic differences (Yeh, 2004). Given that urban schools often lack the funding for mental health and vocational programs for their students (Kozol, 1991; Yeh, 2004), a program like CEDAR may be the only place that immigrant students can discuss difficulties that they encounter in their everyday lives (e.g., family expectations, language barriers, discrimination, economic hardship), while also obtaining information on job search and college application procedures. In addition, the core belief of this program is that, for ethnic minority individuals, career is not just about one's autonomy to choose based on one's skills and interests, but rather intertwined with factors embedded in the larger sociocultural system. Addressing these contextual factors in the group is a way of validating immigrant students' experiences and providing culturally sensitive career counseling service to this population.

The structure and communication styles of the CEDAR program have taken the cultural values and needs of Chinese immigrant students into consideration. The program is clearly structured, content specific, interdependent, collaborative, and linguistically assessable. The group was conducted by bicultural, bilingual facilitators who could relate to these immigrant youth's struggles living in a different cultural context. It is believed that this program can be replicated and adapted to fit the needs of the increasingly diverse student population in urban school settings.


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Munyi Shea, Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Teachers College, Columbia University; Pei-Wen Winnie Ma, Counseling and Behavioral Health Service, New York University; Christine J. Yeh, Department of Counseling Psychology, University of San Francisco. Pei-Wen Winnie Ma is now at Department of Psychology, William Paterson University. The authors thank Sarah J. Lee, Stephanie T. Pituc, Melody Kellogg, and Martha Polin for their excellent assistance on this project. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Christine J. Yeh, Department of Counseling Psychology, University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA 94117 (e-mail:
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Title Annotation:Effective Techniques
Author:Shea, Munyi; Ma, Pei-Wen Winnie; Yeh, Christine J.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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