Hmong refugee comes full circle with U program’s help

Freshman Kaoxue Vang tutors through a program that helped her adjust when she immigrated to Minnesota.

University of Minnesota freshman Kaoxue Vang, left, helps Pao Lee, center, and Pao Xiong, right, with an assignment on dinosaurs. Vang tutors every Sunday night through the Sunday Tutoring Program hosted by the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing. Vang was tutored in the program when she was in grade school.

Marisa Wojcik

University of Minnesota freshman Kaoxue Vang, left, helps Pao Lee, center, and Pao Xiong, right, with an assignment on dinosaurs. Vang tutors every Sunday night through the Sunday Tutoring Program hosted by the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing. Vang was tutored in the program when she was in grade school.

Amanda Bankston

When Kaoxue Vang arrived in Minnesota seven years ago, the only English words she knew were âÄúI love youâÄù âÄî a common phrase in the Thai refugee camp where she was born and raised.

On the ride home from the airport, she was first introduced to streets with names and green grass where she was used to seeing dirt.

Soon after, she was also introduced to the challenge of navigating the education system without a full command of the English language or support at home.

But with the help of University of Minnesota-based programming and community support, Vang pored over her studies and overcame the odds.

Within seven years, she went from only knowing three words of English to applying and earning admission to the University where she is currently a freshman.

Heidi Barajas, associate dean at the UniversityâÄôs College of Education and Human Development and executive director of the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, has extensively researched issues of equity and access to education.

She has also observed Vang as part of a research project about Hmong student success.

Barajas said Vang quickly realized the key to educational success for any student.

âÄúOne thing IâÄôll say about anybody successful in education is that theyâÄôre able to seek out support,âÄù she said. âÄúIn [VangâÄôs] case, she had a lot of support and knew where to go for help.âÄù


âÄòA powerful messageâÄô

On Sunday evening, Vang stood over her 14-year-old sister Maixoua VangâÄôs shoulder at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and helped guide her through her ninth grade advanced composition homework.

âÄúThis is really weird,âÄù Maixoua Vang said, about her sisterâÄôs new role as a tutor. âÄúWe used to come for help together and now sheâÄôs the one helping.âÄù

Kaoxue Vang said she probably never would have stepped foot on the University campus without help from Jay Clark and the UniversityâÄôs Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

Vang said Hmong students were the victims of bullying and inadequate education standards in North Minneapolis schools.

She said she remembers sitting in classrooms where she didnâÄôt learn anything because of her limited English and relying heavily upon Hmong classmates and relatives whenever she needed something.

âÄúIt was frustrating and boring,âÄù she said. âÄúWe couldnâÄôt do anything. We only left for school and came back.âÄù

Clark said he encouraged them to seek enrollment elsewhere through the âÄúChoice is YoursâÄù program, which allows low-income students to enroll in suburban school districts where they would have access to more challenging academic environments that would encourage them to learn English faster.

Vang and her six younger siblings enrolled in Hopkins School District. They also became regulars at the Sunday Tutoring Program held at the Humphrey School when it began in 2008.

âÄúThatâÄôs when my English really started to improve,âÄù Vang said. âÄúIt helped so much.âÄù

Each weekend, Clark and Yia Yiang, a CURA Hmong neighborhood community organizer, transport 15 to 30 Hmong students from their North Minneapolis homes to Humphrey for homework help, student support and activities.

University students typically volunteer as tutors for work-study jobs, service learning courses or through the Hmong Minnesota Student Association or Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence.

This semester, Vang became the first to make the transition from student to tutor.

âÄúIâÄôm really proud of her,âÄù Maixoua Vang said, about her older sister. âÄúI saw how much she went through to make it to University and maybe now she can help when itâÄôs time for me to apply.âÄù

Yiang said Kaoxue VangâÄôs success has had a positive impact on students in the program and helps achieve the secondary goal of the program âÄî to make students believe they belong on university campuses.

âÄúKaoxue used to be in the very same van with them, now sheâÄôs walking around at the University. I think that really sends a powerful message,âÄù he said. âÄúIt gets them thinking, âÄòIf Kaoxue can do this, I can do this.âÄôâÄù


âÄòHard workâÄô

Vang spends most of her time studying in her dorm room at Comstock Hall, where she is a member of the Hmong living-learning community. She said she works twice as hard as most of her classmates to keep pace as she continues to improve her language skills.

âÄúIf something takes them 30 minutes, it will probably take me an hour,âÄù she said. âÄúBut I always challenge myself to learn more and do my best.âÄù

Though she said college is hard work, she admits itâÄôs a welcome break from home life.

Like most eldest daughters in Hmong families, Vang said she carried a lot of the burden of housework and caring for her younger siblings, but Yiang said that responsibility may have provided the discipline she is known for in the classroom.

âÄúShe doesnâÄôt have the mindset that sheâÄôs only been here for six years,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs not easy being the oldest Hmong girl, and for her that experience transferred into her studies.âÄù

Neither of VangâÄôs parents have a formal education. Vang said their primary source of income growing up was what little her mom made sewing Hmong clothing that was shipped to America and sold. Her father is a factory worker.

Though she said it is difficult for them to understand her University experience, she knows sheâÄôs âÄúmade them proud.âÄù

Barajas said Vang earned admission to the University through the Trio Program, which provide federal support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Though she attended workshops and asked for help, she completed most of the application process on her own.

Her college application essay was about all of the challenges sheâÄôs overcome since coming from Thailand.

Vang dreams of a future in medicine âÄî possibly pharmacy.

In the meantime, her biggest challenges are finding a student job and tackling psychology, which she said is her most difficult course.

âÄúSometimes I feel jealous of students who donâÄôt have to work hard to make good grades,âÄù she said. âÄúBut I donâÄôt like to think of that stuff. I just keep doing what I can and trying to be a good student.âÄù