Hmong talk about an elephant in the room

Patrick Larkin/Review

St. Paul resident Tiffany Vang says she never felt particularly encouraged to go to school by her family. “College” wasn’t a word that got thrown around in her household, and most of her siblings did not go to college.

She sees this as part of a larger problem in the Hmong community.

So, working with colleagues, she’s hoping to change that with a new group at the Lao Family Community of Minnesota.

The Hmong Higher Education Committee was started up in April, with a goal of addressing disparities in educational attainment among the Hmong, something that Vang says isn’t really discussed in the community.

“We’re willing to go outside of our comfort zone,” Vang said.

According to research by Dr. Zha Blong Xiong, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, the Hmong face a significant educational achievement gap.

According to 2010 Census data, only 13 percent of Hmong students are going to college, as opposed to 30 percent of white students, and 20 percent of African American students.

The Hmong are “one of the poorest ethnic groups in the nation,” Xiong said, and have one of the lowest per-capita incomes in Minnesota.

This tends to create a feedback loop of sorts - the Hmong are one of several ethnic groups that are stuck in “an intergenerational cycle of poverty,” he said, due, in part, to lack of higher education.

“When parents don’t have college education, you can predict what will happen with their kids,” he said. By focusing on education, “we have an opportunity to change that cycle.”

Breaking it down

To fuel conversation around the topic, the Hmong Higher Education Committee put together a symposium on Friday, June 21, with four panelists to provide context to the problem.

The panel included Xiong, a Hmong-American and a scholar in the field of Southeast Asian American communities, Becky Brunn, a St. Paul public school teacher, Kong Cheng Moua, a recent graduate of Arlington Senior High School, and Sondra Samuel, president of the Northside Achievement Zone in North Minneapolis.

The panelists were asked specific questions to get at the overarching question: “What can we do to support students to achieve higher education?”

The panelists described a myriad of interrelated issues -- language barriers that prevent parents from interacting with the school system, single-parent households that tend to continue the cycle of poverty, lack of knowledge about higher schooling options, to name a few.

Generally, the solutions they proposed focused on connecting families with resources.

Samuel talked about creating a “cradle to college pipeline,” explaining that getting at-risk kids into a higher education tract needs to start “from early childhood on.” For her organization, recruiting a Hmong translator has helped bring kids into that pipeline.

East Sider Chia Lor said she thinks language barriers can cripple a parent’s ability to interact with the school system.

If they don’t speak English, she explained, they can’t access the St. Paul Public Schools’ parent portal.

This is further exacerbated by a cultural disconnect between young Hmong kids and their parents.

The kids grow up as Americans and “experience a whole different culture,” she said. As a result “they don’t feel like they can connect with their parents.”

Lor said she feels like a lucky exception to these trends among the Hmong -- she got into a multicultural excellence program at Highland Senior High, something she said really kept her on track. It helped that her parents were able to speak English -- “they attended conferences, they knew how to access Parent Portal,” unlike many of her peers, she said.

“I was really privileged that my parents were able to learn how to connect with resources,” she said.

Women in front

For the first time in history, (Hmong) women are surpassing men ... in regards to college enrollment,” Xiong said.

Vang, a college graduate, said she’s noticed the trend among her peer group.

“A lot of my Hmong male friends are not in school,” she said. Instead, “they’re working minimum wage jobs.”

“No one is really pushing them,” she said.

Bai Vue, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, is hoping he can help change that.

He’s been part of the Hmong Men’s Circle for three years. The group serves as a support group to collegiate Hmong men, who seek to encourage their high school counterparts to go to college.

Vue said cultural pressures often butt heads with academics -- “Hmong men are expected to be the provider for the household,” which can mean getting a job right out of high school, he explained.

“This expectation is already working against us, not knowing that college can provide more opportunities,” he said.

So, the group is reaching out to provide mentorship to younger Hmong men.

Vue himself was turned around by guidance from a mentor at Washburn Senior High in Minneapolis. He hadn’t even thought about college until his senior year of high school.

“I didn’t understand what college is; my parents didn’t know what college is,” he said. But he got into a program called Educational Talent Search, which he credits for getting him to go to the U of M.

“The program had a tremendous impact on me,” he said. He hopes the efforts of the men’s group will have a similar impact on other kids.

“I am one of the fortunate ones,” he said. “Not everyone gets that.”

Single-family households

Xiong said the divorce rate among Hmong people is significantly high. Historically, he explained, they weren’t able to divorce. Second generation Hmong, however, are becoming more fully integrated into American culture, where they see that if a marriage isn’t working, it’s acceptable to file for divorce.

The high divorce rates tend to lead to economic instability, which can, in turn, affect the likelihood of a child succeeding in school, he said.

But, there are exceptions -- both Vang and Moua grew up in single-parent households, and have gone on to graduate from college and find white-collar jobs.

Speaking before a crowd of about 60 people, Kong Cheng Moua, a 2009 graduate of Arlington High School, talked about his struggles and successes.

His father died when he was 8, he said, and as a result, he was raised by a single mom. Struggling to make ends meet, she didn’t really have time or resources to engage in his education.

“She never sat down with me to work on my multiplication tables,” he said.

Growing up, he was embarrassed by her inability to speak English, and didn’t want her to go to parent-teacher conferences, or really have any involvement in his school.

But she did encourage him to go to college, something that’s stuck with him. He’s now a semester away from graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Looking back, he’s able to see that she did all she could to push him.

“She was the rock of my family,” he said. He’s proud to have her as a mother, he added emphatically.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at

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