Mentoring project aids Hmong students

Andy Skemp

Though the success of the Lighthouse Project will not be measurable for a few years, the mentorship program run by the Asian/Pacific American Learning Resource Center is on its way to proving itself a valuable asset to Minnesota’s growing Hmong community.
The project’s ultimate goal: to encourage Hmong middle-school students to continue into higher education.
Just closing out its second year of operation, the Lighthouse Project — which begins reaching students in the eighth grade — is the first of its kind in Minnesota, providing Hmong middle school students with mentors from the University who act as a tutors, friends and sources of encouragement.
“Many of these students’ parents don’t have an educational background,” said Vang Lee, assistant director of the center. “They expect the kids to help out at home; education is not a top priority for them.”
Cultural conflicts and limited funding are two challenges that the project faces. Bao Vang, head coordinator, said limited funding restricts the amount of time protÇgÇs can meet with their mentors.
But limited dollars and cultural tensions don’t stop Vang’s plans for expansion in the future.
“Next year, we’re hoping for 20 students from each middle school and about 20 mentors,” Vang said.
One of the four cultural learning centers at the University, the center’s staff provides academic support for the University’s Asian students, while dealing with issues in the Twin Cities.
The University’s Office of Multicultural and Academic Affairs and the Coca-Cola Community Building Grant provide a major source of funding for the center.
The 15 members meet once a week with their protÇgÇs, eight of whom are from Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis; 23 are from Highland Park Middle School in St. Paul.
Besides being mentored at their middle schools, the kids come to campus once a month to experience classes, dorm life and all the ins and outs of the life of a college student.
“We see it as win-win situation,” said Yeeleng Hang, a student government coordinator at the University. “The protÇgÇs get the support of a big brother or sister and get answers to questions about college while the mentors get leadership experience.”
A former student affairs counselor at Ann Arbor University in Michigan, Hang was involved in the creation of the Lighthouse Project seven years ago when he and some students established a mentorship program with Detroit schools.
One of the original mentors from the Michigan program, Hang noticed two years ago that the growing Hmong community in St. Paul possessed some similar needs to the one in Detroit.
Since then, large-scale immigrations from California have increased an already well-established Hmong population in the Twin Cities area, bringing recent figures to around 60,000 in the cities and 75,000 for all of Minnesota.