The Power of Mentors

My parents grew up in Laos during the Secret War, which was a smaller conflict of the Vietnam War in Laos. During May of 1975, the Hmong General, Vang Pao, decided to leave Laos. He said to the Hmong people who were still there, ‘Go to Thailand. That's where you'll find safety, and from there we'll see what our future is.’ So my mom and dad and my grandparents all decided to leave.

Photos by Andi Stempniak

Khong Meng Her | Eau Claire, WI

“They made it to Thailand, to live in the refugee camps. They lived there for about 20 years. I was born there, but when I was about two years old my family came to the U.S., so I don’t remember much from the camps.

We came to Appleton, Wisconsin. Then from there we moved out to Kimberly, Wisconsin. 

I went to school there for a few years. There were only two Hmong families in the whole school. Me and my family were still new, and we didn’t speak English that well. All I remember from Kimberly was getting bullied and being the only one who was different and not understanding why.

When we moved back to Appleton, that’s when we reconnected with the Hmong community there. At that time, our neighborhood was surrounded by a lot of Hmong kids. There were ten or 15 Hmong families just in that two- or three-block radius. So we were able to grow up and keep our language and practice it every day. It was like a mini-village, almost. It was a community that really supported the kids and helped raise us.

In the Hmong community, one of the biggest ways we support each other is through family gatherings, or ceremonies.

One is called Hu Plig. It’s a soul calling ceremony. A lot of relatives come together, and we gather around to call back someone’s soul if they feel sick or lost. We really celebrate them so they can get better. When you’re at a ceremony, there’s always elders there. They’re there to teach you about the culture. You can ask questions, you partake in it, you learn about it, and you just reconnect with everyone.

It’s really important to me to help the Hmong kids in my community learn about our culture. One way I do that is by leading a Hmong Cub Scouts pack. We work with kindergartners all the way to sixth-graders. The kids really like storytelling, so we talk about the Story Cloth and why it’s important for the Hmong community. The Story Cloth started in the refugee camps. A lady decided to cut pictures and sew them onto a cloth to tell the story of the Hmong people and their history. Initially, they were sold to tourists or volunteers for money. Now, they’re really popular. We ask the kids about their families and have them make a mini Story Cloth. 

We use the Cub Scout guidelines, so a theme might be the outdoors, and we’ll tie that to our culture and history. We’ll say, ‘This is how the Cub Scouts start a fire, and this is how our elders did it back in the old days.’ Kind of taking the bigger theme and incorporating our own identity so the kids who haven’t been exposed to the Hmong identity yet can really understand and learn from it.”

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“My dad really believes in education. He stressed it a lot. He would tell us kids the story, all the time, of how he went to school in Laos. He had to walk miles away, because his village was so far from the city. He always talked about the privilege we had, just walking two blocks to school. As kids, we didn’t really care. We just said, ‘Sure, whatever, Dad.’

When I was a kid, my English was horrible. I didn’t participate a lot in class because I didn’t know how to communicate with my classmates or teachers. I didn’t learn my alphabet until I was in fourth grade. So, I was put in a lot of different programs to help me read, and do my alphabet, and all that stuff.

They had an IEP, an individualized education plan, for me, so I had extra test time and everything. Because I was put in that program, I created this belief for myself that I was stupid, and I wasn’t like any of the other kids. I didn’t think I was smart enough, so I never really tried in school.

When I was in my chemistry class in high school, one of the Hmong girls said nobody wanted to be my partner because I wasn’t good at it. But then we had a test, and I got the highest score. That same girl said, ‘You’re actually pretty smart,’ and I’m like, ‘I am? I didn’t know that.’ 

From there I really started to question myself more. I realized that maybe it wasn't that I was stupid. Maybe I just didn't fully understand what I was doing, and so I didn't take it to heart to work hard enough.

I decided to apply to college because all my friends were. I kind of just went along and said, ‘Hey, I want to do it, too.’ I applied to Oshkosh, Stout, and Eau Claire. My family had moved to Eau Claire around 2005. That was when the last wave of Hmong refugees from Thailand were coming to the U.S., and my uncles arrived in Eau Claire. The Hmong people are all about community and connecting, and so my dad said, ‘That’s where all my family is, I want to go up there.’

My dad told me he didn’t want me to go too far for college, so I stayed in Eau Claire for him, and I think it was the right choice.

My oldest brother wanted to go to college, but he couldn’t. My parents had gotten into a car accident that gave them back problems, so they actually stopped working. My oldest brother worked and supported my parents and us kids. He sacrificed his college goal for his younger siblings. My two older sisters didn’t have the opportunity to pursue a higher education, either, because they didn’t graduate from high school. They dropped out and worked to support the family, as well.

I was next in line, and my older siblings really wanted me to go to college. They invested in the younger siblings. They wanted us to go forward and pave the path for the next generation. Every day now that I see my older siblings, I think about how much I owe my success to them.”

 “I was the first one in my family to go to college. At first, I didn’t understand the point of doing the financial aid forms, or of registering, or meeting with my advisor. I really had to figure everything out on my own, and try to balance my family life with college, as well.

My family was going through a tough time then, so I never shared any stress from school with them. At one point I was failing, but I never shared that with them because I didn’t want to add to their stress. When they asked me how school was, I just said it was good and brushed everything aside.

There was this one time when I was doing my chemistry homework, and I was crying because I just couldn’t understand it. My dad walked into my room and heard me, and we talked. He just said, ‘This is a hard route that you chose, but at the end it’ll be worth it, and you just need to keep going. If it was easy, like everyone says, then everyone would do it.’

My dad sat down with me in my third year, and we had another serious conversation. He told me, ‘You need to decide what you want to do now, because you’re approaching your fourth year.’ I realized that I liked thinking about my childhood, and I really enjoyed listening to my dad tell stories about the Hmong, and his childhood, and growing up. I love history, I love listening to his stories. So I declared my major in history.

I connected with a history professor, and he became a great mentor. He really pushed me through the history field. It was good for me to be able to connect with someone who had a similar interest. Having him there was like having a father on campus.

One day after class he came up to me and said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing research?’ I said, ‘Oh, I’ve done research before but it was boring. I just don’t like it.’ And he said, ‘What about traveling to Thailand? Have you thought about that?’ I was like, ‘Tell me more.’

We sat down and he went over the requirements and said, ‘This is how you do the travel, you’ve got to write this proposal, you’ve got to explain why you want to go.’ He helped me with the whole process.

He was supposed to go to Thailand with me, but then it turned out he couldn’t, so my dad said he’d come along and help me. He was my tour guide, and he connected me to the Hmong elders in the village and really explained the culture to me. It was good to have him along.

He was so interested in education, and now he was at my side, really doing research with me. It was good to come full circle and connect with him like that.

One of the Hmong elders I met with grew up during the war and talked about those experiences. The other people I interviewed talked about staying behind in Thailand, why they chose not to come to the U.S., what some of the benefits were of staying there, and some of the struggles they’d had.

I also spent time with my uncles who still live in Thailand, and I got to know my father more through that. They shared stories of my father growing up. I learned that my dad was a naughty kid, too. So we connected in a lot of different ways.

When I came back, I was required to write a paper about my research. I wrote about the history of Hmong men so I could tell my father’s story.”

“Today, I’m one of the student services coordinators at UW-Eau Claire for Blugold Beginnings, which is a pre-college and career readiness program. We meet once a month with our students and monitor them through the whole four or five or six years—however long it takes them to graduate.

I have about 300 or 400 students I oversee. I monitor them when they need help, or when they reach out to me. They come and see me, I talk to them, and just really make sure they are doing good as a student. Sometimes we do things outside of our job requirements, like we help students move.

I make sure they know all the resources that are available to them. We want to start off by giving them resources, and eventually we’ll really be hands-off, so by the time they leave the program they can go out there and not depend so much on other people.

I work mainly with students of color. I think it's really important for us to work with those students. I know a lot of them are first-generation students, and they have no one to look up to who went to college.

I think some of our students of color don’t see college as a place for them. They come here and maybe the first year they try it out, and they go, ‘College is not for me because x, y, and z.’ This is where we come in, and we say, ‘Well, this is why it IS for you.’ A lot of students we’ve worked with are about family and wanting to give back. We touch on that, and we say, ‘How can you give back if you leave school nowadays?’ We really want to focus on them, and push them, because every student we work with has potential, it’s just that they don’t see it in themselves.

I share my story with a lot of my students. I let them know that I didn’t get here because I was an A student. I worked hard to be here, and I say, ‘You can make it, as well, by just working hard.’ I really like providing support for our students who come in and don’t know anything about college, because I’ve been through it and I know how hard it can be.”

-Khong Meng Her | Eau Claire, WI

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