BY ANDY STEINER
CATHERINE TSEN '11
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Hmong students are among the highest percentage of multicultural students at St. Kate's, and administrators are developing innovative ways to attract them and help them feel at home.
TALK ABOUT EARLY DECISION. By fourth grade, Nouchie Xiong already knew where she wanted to go to college.
"One day at school I picked up a magazine," she recalls. "I opened the page and saw an ad for St. Kate's. There was a photo of a woman of color and the copy said something like, 'Educating women to lead and influence.' That made a big impression on me. I was a feminist even then, though I didn't have a word for it yet. I knew I wanted to lead and influence someday, and when I saw the woman in that picture I felt like she could be me, that I could go to St. Kate's and succeed."
And succeed she has. Last spring, Nouchie Xiong '08 became the first member of her family to earn a bachelor's degree. The oldest daughter of hard-working Hmong immigrants, she likes to tell the story about her singular, early focus on the College and her journey — both metaphorically and physically — to the school. (Her story has its twists and turns, Xiong likes to joke: Though she grew up just minutes away from the College in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, she always thought that St. Kate's was "in some exclusive suburb." She and her mother got lost on their first trip to campus.)
When Xiong and her mother finally did find the College, she felt like she had come home. "There were students there who looked like me," she says. "There were even some Hmong women on staff. I knew I'd come to the right place."
That's just the sort of story admission staffers at St. Kate's like to hear. "Quite a few years ago, we made a decision in our office that as a college we wanted to attract more multicultural students," says Marlene Mohs, associate dean of admission. The College is meeting its goals. "When I got here 13 years ago, the percentage of students of color was under 10 percent in our first-year class," Mohs explains. "Now we're steadily between 20 and 22 percent."
But now, thanks to a combination of factors — including physical proximity to large Hmong population centers, majors like nursing, education and business that appeal to many immigrant families, and a welcoming environment for commuter students — the school is home to one of the largest populations of Hmong scholars in the nation. In 2008, for instance, the office of Multicultural and International Programs and Services (MIPS) estimates that some 160 Hmong students were enrolled at the College, making the Hmong one of the largest minority groups on campus.
Presented with these facts, the College has redoubled its efforts to attract, welcome and retain Hmong students. The first private college in the nation to launch such an effort, St. Kate's is a trailblazer, and the way the school has responded to this growing population can be seen as a case study of a timely response to an emerging demographic trend.
"In the United States the college population is becoming increasingly diverse," Mohs says. According to the Minnesota Private College Council, in the next 10 years, the number of high school graduates of color is expected to increase by 52 percent, while the number of white graduates will likely decline by 19 percent. So in the years ahead, area colleges increasingly will need to follow St. Kate's example, moving to better reflect the community's demographic shifts.
A Whole New World
At St. Kate's, welcoming a new population of first-generation college students and their families has required significant cultural shifts and changes in programming. For the last two years, for instance, the College has been offering multicultural financial aid nights in Hmong and Spanish. Around the same time, MIPS and the Office of Student Retention teamed up with the Parent and Family Association to create a Hmong-friendly parent orientation. (See "Worth a Thousand Words.")
Because none of those services was available when she applied to the College, Nouchie Xiong left her parents at home and met with a financial aid officer on her own. She knew that her parents would have difficulty understanding complex financial aid information if it were discussed only in English. It was up to her to convince her father that the family could afford a private college education.
"After my meeting, my dad and I sat down and I said, 'It is cheaper if I go to a private college. Here's how financial aid makes that possible,'" she recalls. "He eventually agreed that I could do it, but he made it clear that he was letting me pave the way for the rest of my siblings. He told me that if I messed up, I'd be letting everyone down. He wanted me to understand that I should stick with my decision and see it through to the end."
With the Hmong-language sessions, the College is now ensuring that parents like Xiong's have the information they need. Admission and financial aid officers want Hmong parents to feel welcome and respected, says Ellen Richter-Norgel, director of student retention. Richter-Norgel, who was instrumental in developing the new Hmong-language parent orientation sessions, recalls the moment she realized just how important it was to intentionally include Hmong parents in the college selection process.
"One day, I was at an orientation event and I was watching a group of Hmong parents who were speaking with an interpreter," Richter-Norgel recalls. "I didn't understand what they were saying, but the passion in their voices and the level of desire to be partners in their daughters' education was profound. I realized then that we need to deliver these programs in a way that meets these parents' needs. They so badly want to support their daughters. We had been clueless. We were leaving out Hmong parents by not offering special programs for them, programs with interpreters and with information delivered in a more culturally sensitive way."
"Financial literacy is something that people in the Hmong community need to focus on," she says. "Coming to a school that's $35,000 a year is a tremendously big leap for many Hmong students. But we really can make St. Kate's affordable to them. At this session, we can spend time explaining the financial aid process to families who may have no prior experience with how it works. We can take this opportunity to educate both the parents and ourselves."
An Essential Connection
At St. Kate's, administrators always look to have members of the Parent and Family Association Council reflect the student body. A few years ago, during the association's annual Parent and Family Phonathon, its board became aware of LiCho Xenexai. The father of two Katies, Xenexai, executive director of St. Paul-based nonprofit Hmong Youth Education, quickly agreed to join the advisory board.
Xenexai volunteered to contact parents of incoming Hmong students, says Chuayi Yang, MIPS assistant director: "LiCho has taken his own initiative. When we do the programs, he makes outreach efforts to contact parents and prospective parents at home. He'll tell them about the Hmong parent orientation program and explain to them why it is so important for them to be involved. He'll assist us with the actual presentation of the program. For many Hmong parents he has more credibility as a parent than I do as a staff member."
Xenexai says he is willing to donate his time to St. Kate's because he feels good about the work the school has been doing to address the needs of the Hmong community. "As a Hmong person, I feel like my family is welcome at St. Kate's," he says. "I want other Hmong parents to see the work the school is doing to educate our daughters, to make sure that they remain safe. It is a good match for Hmong families."
Xenexai is modest about the importance of his advocacy for the College. "I do what I think is needed to be done," he says. "I believe that parents play a big part in their children's education. Many parents — especially Hmong parents — come up with the excuse that, 'We don't have a formal educational background. We don't speak English so we can't help.'"
But, Xenexai likes to say, it doesn't take an advanced degree or proficiency in more than one language to be a good parent. What it does take is love, support and commitment.
"Not so long ago I called a couple whose daughter will be attending St. Kate's," he says. "They both work and they said they may not be able to make it to the orientation. I said, 'I understand that if you take the day off you may lose a couple hundred dollars. Allow me to mention that the most important thing you have here is your daughter.' When I arrived at orientation both of them were there. They said, 'Because you called us, we are here.' I said, 'It's not for me. It's for your daughter. That's the most important reason of all.'"
For Patag Xiong, going away to college wasn't as simple as packing her belongings and moving into a dorm. Because her parents run a busy family business, they rely on Xiong to take care of her younger siblings, to cook family meals and occasionally to interpret for them. "My parents see a hopeful future for me," says the first-year student, a middle child in a family of eight. "They are proud of me being in college, but they also made it clear that they need me at home every night. Students who live on campus form a greater bond with their roommates. They don't have to rush home after class. They can just hang out in the dorms with their friends. That's part of the college experience I'm not getting."
Sophomore Julie Lor's responsibilities are larger than just making sure she doesn't sleep through her exams: At 20 years old, she's married with a 2-year-old son. Though her husband and family are supportive of her decision to pursue her education, Lor still struggles to meet both her educational and parental requirements.
"Even though I have a son, I never thought for a moment that I wouldn't go to college," Lor says. "I want to be a successful woman with kids. I don't want marriage and parenthood to hold me back." Although her family helps to care for her son and her husband often cooks dinner, "sometimes, it can be a real struggle just to get everything done," Lor says.
Finding their Voices
There are times when trying to match a Hmong upbringing with a classic liberal arts education can feel like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, says Sia Vang '05, office coordinator for the College's Abigail Q. McCarthy Center for Women. "Hmong women are doing it all. I look around and see students living in two worlds and working very hard to meet the expectations of both. You live one life on campus and another at home, where you're supposed to be a proper, obedient Hmong girl."
Because she knew that she would have benefited from a strong support system when she attended the College — and because she has learned that strong peer support is a key element that keeps students from dropping out — Sia Vang helped establish an association for Hmong undergraduate students. She had, she says, strong encouragement and assistance from Economics and Women's Studies Professor Deep Shikha. Called Ntxhais Hmoob, or Hmong Daughters of St. Kate's, the group holds regular monthly meetings to provide support and discuss issues that concern students of Hmong descent.
Sia Vang herself is a strong influence on the students, and she's become close to them. "I'm like their big sister," she says. She mentors the students in a way that helps them advance their college careers, like pushing them to find their voices. "We're all really quiet in the classroom," she says. "I tell them to speak up like they do when they're in the Center."
Hmong Daughters meetings are open, and group members can make up their own agenda. Students can ask anonymous questions for group discussion or they can suggest meeting topics. "The idea is that we want to honor the individual experience of all Hmong students," says Sia Vang. "You don't leave your life at the door."
Young Hmong women like Lor and Patag Xiong face responsibilities and concerns that are different from those of the average undergraduate student. The cultural expectations and traditions they live with can clash with the expectations of a classic college setting.
The Hmong Daughters' ethos of not feeling the need to erase all traces of "Hmong-ness" in order to be accepted has made Lor feel like she's finally found a place where she fits in. That's important, she says, because earning a college degree is tough. She needs all the support she can get.
"I'm trying to be a traditional Hmong girl, and I'm trying to be a modern girl, too," she says. "I'm trying to strike that balance while I'm trying to get my family to adapt to who I am. Not every student on campus would understand the issues I'm struggling with, but the people at Hmong Daughters always know where I'm coming from. That's a great feeling."
"Back when I was a student, if somebody had reached out their hand and said, 'Hey, I can help you,' I would have been so grateful," she says. "Instead, I was too shy. I was afraid to come out and reach out. Now in my job at the Women's Center, I make a point of going up to anyone sitting on the couch and saying, 'This is the Center. Please know that you are always welcome to come here.' Stepping forward and extending a welcoming hand can make the difference for a student who's feeling overwhelmed."
Susan Bosher, associate professor of English and director of English as a Second Language, came to believe almost by accident that St. Kate's should offer a full-credit Hmong language course.
"I am language coordinator for the Urban Library Program," Bosher says. "I needed to hire a teaching assistant for a Hmong-language course we were offering for a certificate program. There were many native Hmong speakers among the students who applied for the position, but few who felt confident reading or writing the language. I was afraid that it was beginning to look like the Hmong language was going to disappear."
With the support of Nancy Heitzeg, associate professor of sociology, and Alan Silva, dean of arts and sciences, a decision was made to offer a "Hmong Language and Culture" course through the Critical Studies in Race and Ethnicity department. Bosher and her colleagues recruited Ka Zoua Xiong, a recent St. Olaf College graduate who had taught a non-credit Hmong language course at her college, to be the instructor for the St. Kate's course.
Most of the people in the Twin Cities qualified to teach a course in Hmong are older men, Ka Zoua Xiong says. She thinks that Bosher and her colleagues were interested in hiring a young woman who could be a role-model for students. "To find a young Hmong woman who just graduated from college and is interested in Hmong language and culture is rare," she says. "I'm unique in that regard."
The course, which was offered in Fall 2008, filled quickly. Ka Zoua Xiong says that in a class of 25 students, 20 were native Hmong speakers.
The College added a second level of the course in Winter 2009, and by summer "Hmong Language and Culture III" will be offered. Ka Zoua Xiong believes that the course's popularity proves the wisdom of the professors who were its early champions. "The St. Kate's professors and staff have been amazing," she says. "I'm completely new here, and yet they have been supporting me from the beginning. From the first day I got here I saw that there are people at St. Kate's who really care about the welfare of Hmong students. They have their best interests in mind."
In the Family Way
A magazine ad may have led Nouchie Xiong to attend St. Kate's, but student recruitment is rarely that simple. Along with advertising, reputation plays a role, says Mohs, but in many communities word-of-mouth shapes how high school students make their college decisions.
Yang agrees. Recommendations from families, mentors and friends are highly influential in the Hmong community, she says. "If you have 10 happy students here, word will spread. People hear good things about the school and want to come check it out."
Adds Mohs: "Hmong families tend to be large, and so there is a natural recruiting group of brothers and sisters and cousins who will hear stories when students have a good experience at the school. This leads to higher levels of interest among a certain population."
The feeling that St. Kate's is a growing family that's constantly welcoming new members inspired Nouchie Xiong to accept a position as a counselor in the College's admission office. She's excited by the school's commitment to the Hmong community and thrilled to be in the position of welcoming new students to their future.
If she's lucky, Nouchie Xiong concedes with a laugh, someday she can inspire another young woman like herself to dare to reach for her dream.
"I think one of the most beneficial things for Hmong students at St. Kate's is the Hmong women staff members," she says. "We're living proof that Hmong women can succeed. When I started here there were just two Hmong women on staff. Now there are nine of us. It has created a strong community that brings in sisters and cousins and other relatives. It's starting to feel like one big, extended family, and that's a really great thing."
Andy Steiner is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities who served as a contract editor for this issue of SCAN.
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