Social, cutural and economic hurdles make it difficult, if not impossible, for many American students to succeed in school and go on to attend college.
Lily Moua, a 2002 recipient of a “Beat the Odds” scholarship from the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota, first tackled the issue of Hmong girls and education head-on when she was in high school. Setting up meetings between parents and students in her community allowed Hmong students to explain the importance of extracurricular activities for educational opportunities to their parents, while giving parents a place to voice their fears of cultural abandonment.
Lily is the sixth of 12 children of Hmong immigrants who struggled to face the challenge of becoming a member of American society while respecting the wishes and culture of her parents. Although her parents realized the importance of education, they expected Lily to come home after school and fit into the traditional Hmong girl’s role where she should help around the house and have no goals beyond marrying and raising a family. In an essay for the Beat the Odds scholarship program Lily wrote, “I had a vision about how remarkable it would be if the language and culture barriers between parents and students improved and if a system of support and trust could be built between parents and students.”
Lily went on to attend St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. I interviewed her last week about her college experience and what she’s doing today.
What did you study at St. Olaf? Sociology and Anthropology Major. Management and Asian Studies Minor. I studied aboard in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Tanzania.
Were you involved in any extracurricular activities, or did you do any volunteer work? Yes. I was extremely busy leading, teaching, and dancing on campus. I also mentored and tutored a number of students on and off campus and served on three non profit boards and committees. I continue my same legacy in college like in high school where I taught Hmong college students how to speak, read, and write Hmong so that they can be comfortable and confident in their bicultural abilities. In addition, I taught the students how to appreciate their culture and their parent’s sacrifices. We had annual Hmong appreciation banquets where Hmong parents got to learn about the experience of going to college and we shared with them our appreciation for our culture and heritage–this became a great bonding experience for parents and their son/daughter and a good recruiting mechanism for St. Olaf.
Did you go on to medical school, or were you inspired to take a different path? After I started college, I decided that I wanted to travel and study abroad as much as possible. Studying pre-medicine did not allow me to be flexible or to explore my life/career passions. It was the end of my freshmen year that I decided I did not want to dedicate my life to studying medicine. I found my love for studying people, cultures, places, structures, and organizations while studying abroad and making sense of my interests in college. I discovered that I wanted to do many things and explore multiple careers that allowed me to leave a legacy, make a difference in numerous ways, impact larger communities and societies, and where I can live well plus have a healthy and fun life style. After graduating and working for Target Corporation, I continued on to pursue my masters degree in public policy.
What are you doing now? Now, I work for the US Dept of Agriculture-APHIS where I do HR classification to help the agency protect agricultural health, regulate genetically engineered organisms, and administer the Animal Welfare Act. I advise and work with management at all levels to ensure their programs and organizations are well structured/designed and the positions are managed and classified to achieve the agency’s goals. I also do civil rights advising and lead cultural awareness initiatives.
I am also a facilitator for the Hmong Women Leadership Institute, where I get to empower and teach Hmong women about leadership and how to cross culturally navigate systems (the Hmong and American). I mentor a number of individuals, do some fundraising in the community, and also recently started my own real estate investment business.
How did receiving a Beat the Odds Scholarship change your life? Before, I didn’t know that my voice and leadership abilities were acknowledgeable. I just thought I was an ordinary Hmong girl who dreamed of going to college. After receiving the BTO award, I became confident in myself and believed that I can become successful in helping myself and others live better and dream bigger. I never had so much attention and media focused on me–that made me realize that the people in Minnesota wanted me to succeed because they saw the potential in me to change and help others. It definitely gave me the confidence to study hard and graduate cum laude, explore areas where I can make the most of my talent, and take advantage of each opportunity where I can learn and make a difference.