University Reaches out to Hmong Women

Article excerpt

ST. PAUL, MINN. * The word "college" was nonexistent to Mysee Chang until her sophomore year of high school.

"I thought it was elementary, middle, high school and then I was done," said Mysee Chang, who is from Corcoran, Minn. Listening to teachers and mentors as well as partaking in an all-female literature class encouraged her to research her college options.

Toward the end of her sophomore year, Mysee Chang started her college quest by searching "all women college, St. Paul, Minn." on the Internet. St. Catherine University was the first hit.

"I looked at their mission statement--'Educating women to lead and influence--that was one phrase I never forgot," she said. "It just spoke to me and I knew I wanted to lead and influence."

St. Catherine University, nicknamed "St. Kate's," is the largest college for women in the nation. It was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1905 as a higher education institute for women. The school has a campus in St. Paul and Minneapolis and also offers graduate and associate programs for both women and men.

About 15 years ago, the multicultural population at St. Kate's was only 10 percent of the student body, said Mai Nhia Xiong-Chan, assistant director of admissions and financial aid at St. Kate's. "We've seen the multicultural population grow to over 22 percent now, with the majority of them being Hmong students."

Since the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, Hmong people have emigrated to the United States from Southeast Asia. Minnesota has the largest Hmong population in the United States, along with California and Wisconsin. About 50,000 people of Hmong descent live in Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to Diversity & Democracy, a publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

When St. Kate's decided to increase outreach to multicultural populations in the late 1990s, it asked its Hmong students at the time about their experience meeting the demands of a Hmong family and meeting the demands of college.

"Often the parents didn't speak English so it was really the students' responsibility to understand all the information and relay it to their families," said Marlene Mohs, associate dean of admissions.

The language barrier and familial obligations were two tough obstacles for Hmong families when sending their daughters to college. So St. Kate's started translation services and a meeting group where students from Hmong families could express the difficulty balancing school life and family life.

"At St. Kate's, you're encouraged to speak your mind," said Xiong-Chan, who is one of a handful of Hmong staff members. "As Hmong women, we're not raised that way We're the last ones to raise our hands, the last ones to comment--it's walking in two worlds."

The staff at St. Kate's realized the strong family ties within the Hmong community and tried to bridge the gap to make college information more accessible to parents, as well as accommodating students.

"Some of the things that we had always done with students--a lot of personal contact, helping with each step of the college process, and reaching out to the community--really resonated with the Hmong community," Mohs said.

In the last five years, a special emphasis on recruiting Hmong students took place, Xiong-Chan said. The college's orientation and its financial aid day are available in Hmong. Also, the school provides DVDs in Hmong that orient parents with the college.

"It was the first college that offered a tape about the college in Hmong," said Mysee Chang, who is a sophomore double-majoring in critical studies in race and ethnicity and women's studies. "They have financial aid sessions [translated] in Hmong, so my mom was on board with me every step of the way--that was a big part of why I chose St. Kate's."

Hmong culture is a patriarchal society with strong community bonds, Xiong-Chan said. …