We recently got a chance to catch up with Ph.D. student and the Department of Curriculum and Instruction Diversity and Excellence Scholar, Lesley Yang. Read her story below to find out where she comes from and what brought her to Curriculum and Instruction.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Yuba City, California, but my story does not begin with my birth; my story begins with my parents who fled Laos after the Vietnam War. As a child, I did not realize that the average American family was not like mine. My parents were strawberry farmers who, during the harvest season, were often gone before I woke up and did not get home until late in the evenings. My siblings and I were not involved in any extracurricular activities; instead we came straight home after school and played games like niam tais, yawm txiv until my parents got home from the field. At the age of eight, my family uprooted from California to Boise, Idaho, a place that my parents hoped would provide us with better economic opportunities.
My educational experience in Idaho was drastically different than my experience in California. I went from attending a school that provided in-class support for Hmong students and a community that offered free summer school for underprivileged kids, to a school that had no support for immigrant students and a community that had no idea the struggles immigrant families face. Not only was I the only Hmong person, but I was also one of very few students of color at my school. My peers and teachers canonized me as the Asian "model minority" student. This imposed identity allowed me to navigate predominately white schools without being placed into remedial courses like ESL when English was not my first language.
My feelings of being isolated continued as I went onto college and rarely saw another Asian American student or faculty. I initially majored in business with the intent of obtaining a stable corporate job after I graduated. However, my career plans took a stark turn when I started working for the Multicultural Student Service Center on campus. I began exploring my identity as Hmong American woman, reading academic literature on race and started diving into social justice work. At the same time I was going through a personal change in my life, I was admitted into the McNair Scholars Program. I eventually changed my major to sociology and economics because I wanted to pursue graduate work that was more meaningful to me.
As a first generation college student, graduate school did not seem like it was within in my purview of realistic goals--in fact graduate school was never even a thought. I am grateful for the opportunities the McNair Scholars Program has provided me because without the program I know that I, along with many other students of color, would not be in graduate school pursuing a Ph.D. Most importantly, the program demystified the image that I think a lot of other first generation students have about graduate school as being a place of prestige and elitism where only those who are considered "highly intellectual" are admitted. I was also fortunate to have many great individuals who supported my growth as scholar and to them I will always be grateful.
What drew you to the University of Minnesota?
What initially drew me to the University of Minnesota was Associate Professor Bic Ngo's scholarship on immigrant education, particularly her work with Hmong American students. After visiting the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, it was apparent to me that many of the faculty members and graduate students are actively engaged with the community in their research. As a scholar who is interested in breaking down the walls of the "ivory tower," I value the department's commitment to community engagement. The Culture and Teaching track in particular was attractive to me because of its commitment to social justice.
I strongly believe that to engage in education is to engage in a political act, and people cannot remain neutral in their position as educators. Consequently, I appreciate the dedication of the faculty and students in the Culture and Teaching track to social justice education. It was also important for me to find a space where I could further explore my identity as a Hmong American woman. Graduate school for me is not just about nurturing my growth as a scholar but also my growth as an individual, and I truly believe I chose the right place.
How did you get into education?
I have always been interested in studying how education as an institution reproduces oppressions, but what really solidified my passion to pursue a Ph.D. in education was my experience at Pennsylvania State University. I was selected to conduct research as a part of an intensive summer research program for undergraduates and had the opportunity to work closely with faculty in the sociology department. My research explored the model minority myth through examining the academic achievement in math and reading scores among first grade Asian ethnic groups. Through the work I did, I realized that there was a lack of research being done on Southeast Asian American students and that the dominant discourse of Asians as the model minority masks the problems faced by many Asian immigrant students.
What motivates/inspires you?
I am motivated by the possibilities of transforming our world through research and curriculum. Scholars who have dedicated their lives and their academic work to social justice inspire me and I hope to use my scholarship to create change as well.
Are there books that inspire you? What would you recommend?
I think that my idea of leisure reading may not be what most people consider be to leisure reading, but several books that inspire me and I have enjoyed are: Racism without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, killing rage: Ending Racism by bell hooks and Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Although I do not read many fictional books, I love and want to read more stories like A Passage to India by E.M. Foster and I Love Dollars: And Other Stories of China by Zhu Wen.
For more information about Lesley's program, please visit our Culture and Teaching Ph.D. page and Associate Professor Bic Ngo's profile page.