Mai Lee’s Educational Journey

Published by Darron Toy on


Let me share the story of a girl whose
parents made the long journey halfway around the world to start a new life, who
made sacrifices and were determined for their children to prosper to do better
than they ever could. I would not be where I am without everything that my
parents have done, but to understand my academic journey let’s first look at
what it means to be Hmong. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Hmong is
defined as a member of the people living traditionally in isolated mountain
villages throughout Southeast Asia. Large numbers have emigrated to the U.S. It is also defined as a language of the Hmong, occurring in a large number of highly
distinct dialects. Many years ago, among the high mountainous villages in Laos,
my parents grew up among family, surrounded by lush forests of banana
trees and bamboos. They led the typical lifestyle of raising cows, pigs, and
chickens while farming wheat for a food staple: rice. Because the Hmong
traditionally lead a patriarchal society, the men hold dominate roles within the
household and all aspects of the culture. Due to this, my father was able to earn
the equivalent of a third grade level education. In comparison, although my
mother was an only child born into a more affluent family, she was a daughter
and, therefore, formal schooling was never an option. At a far too young age, my
father was already a proud soldier fighting for the Hmong people and the
American people in the Vietnam War – and soon after, in The Secret War. He fought
alongside his relatives and friends as comrades in a war which the American
soldiers soon pulled out of. Eventually, my father was able to make his way out
of Laos, across the Mekong River, and into a refugee camp in Thailand; but leaving
behind my mother and their three children. He would send money and his picture
along with a colleague to return to Laos in attempt to help my mother and
older siblings join my father in safety. In 1985, my parents
were reunited. In 1986, I came along and joined the family. A year after that, my
family and I were granted the opportunity to immigrate to the United
States of America. When I was old enough to start school, I joined my older
sisters at Balderas Elementary; a school in Southeast Fresno that was mainly made up of Hmong and Hispanic students. We wore uniforms that my parents could barely
afford and read from books that were sometimes torn and missing pages. Yet,
all I knew was the joy of learning and playing with classmates and friends. As a
child, I was very shy and quiet. Even worse, I was always the shortest in the
class and this meant I got picked on by classmates a lot. Nevertheless, I enjoyed
school and reading was my favorite subject. For that age, I must have done
pretty well because I was an honor roll student and even received the Principal’s Award once. I don’t remember the reason for the award, but my parents
still have it hanging in their bedroom, along with all my siblings’ awards, to
this day. For seventh and eighth grade, I attended Sequoia Middle School and was
tapped into the most advanced level. That’s when classes became more
challenging. I began to struggle badly with math and science during this stage,
but was afraid to seek help for fear of being considered unintelligent. I was not
part of any clubs, but I distinctly recall a summer reading assignment for
my Language Arts class. It was to read as much as possible and write a book report
for each completed reading. When school started, it turned out that I had read
the most and I won a pizza party! Toward the end of middle school I had three
high schools as options to attend. I could either go to my home school, Sunnyside High, pursue a vocational track at Duncan Polytechnical High School, or
try out for Roosevelt’s School the Arts. In the end, I opted to attend Sunnyside High.
In high school, I tried to be more involved so I joined the science club and I
played badminton for one year. I made some new friends and was starting to
open up. At this time, there was a strange phenomenon occurring in which a series
of Hmong high school-aged teens were taking their own lives. Fresno Unified
School District created an initiative to seek out causes for these suicides, and
address the dilemma; and somehow, I became involved in all this. I was most active
in my senior year as I participated in the homecoming float and joined the
Hmong Club. I was even selected as the Hmong Club’s Senior Award Recipient for
being the most dedicated member. I had also decided to enroll into a Regional
Opportunity Program at Duncan Polytechnical High School. This meant, my senior year, I attended Sunnyside each morning and after lunch I would take a
school bus to Duncan for my afternoon class in Wildlife and Ecology. My
teammates and I participated in FFA competitions throughout the Central
Valley and I even came in second place in a state competition. After I graduated
high school, I was hired as an entry-level worker for the U.S. Forestry Service.
My work crew and I met each morning and drove together up to the Sierra National
Forest to repair broken barbed-wire fences and lay rocks in a stream bed to
prevent erosion. After that summer, job I started college
at Fresno State. I was so naive about college that in high school I never even
applied elsewhere as a back up simply because Fresno State was local, and my
older sisters were already attending there. Additionally, my parents expected
that I stay in town for college to help support the family. Thankfully, I was
admitted and I would spend the next several years trying to figure out what
major to select. Eventually, I chose art because it was the most enjoyable to me;
and I went on to later add a minor in Anthropology. Throughout college, I did
not participate in any on-campus clubs or organizations. My focus was on classes, my part-time retail job, and arranging my class schedule to fill my
responsibilities of picking up my niece from grade school. At this point, I was
the oldest child in the house and had to help care for my five younger siblings
and our niece and nephew. In my family, there is no such thing as just focusing
on school because you’re expected to do it all – and do it well. So it’s not
surprising that I don’t have any pictures from my undergraduate years of
college. Therefore, here’s a generic graduation
picture I found online to serve as a visual. When I finally finished my
studies, I opted not to attend any graduation ceremonies. To this day, my
family still reminds me of my decision and how it did not permit my parents to
partake in the accomplishment I had achieved. After graduating with my
bachelor’s degree, I applied for and was accepted to the graduate program for Art
with the focus in Painting. A few weeks before I was to start my first semester
as a graduate art student, the daunting idea of student loans and limited job
prospects won out and I withdrew from the program. Instead, I got a full-time
job on campus and continued financially supporting my family. I have been working as a staff now for almost six years at Fresno State and I went back for my
master’s degree because at one point I was informed by the Administrative
Coordinator that I didn’t have a say because my title was too low. You see, I
was the administrative support assistant at that time. Of course, this was hurtful,
but I used it as motivation to push myself to take on challenges that
permitted me to grow and learn. Needless to say, I left that office soon after. Two
years ago, I finally applied to another graduate program – this time choosing the
educational field to expand on the knowledge and experiences I have already had in Student Affairs. I am grateful for the opportunities that have been
presented to me on this long journey. As I look back, I’m surprised to see my own
growth and perseverance over the years; mainly because going through it I did
not have the time to stop and think about what I was actually having to do. I
am proud to say that I’m a first- generation Hmong-American women
succeeding in a full-time staff position and being a full-time graduate student.
Come May 2020, I will be the first in my family to earn a master’s degree and I can’t
tell you who is more excited for this day – myself, my fiancé who has shown
unwavering support these last few years, my fiance’s family who welcomed me into
their home, or my family. I want to end on this quote and hope it inspires you to
always remember your journey and to lend a helping hand to others who are also
making their way forward. I hope it also reminds you to be kind to yourself and
to others, as it did for me.

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