Before Bee Vang moved to Minnesota in fall 2006 from a village in Laos, she was told her straight dark hair would get her into trouble.
“They said girls coming to America had to have curly hair like American people or they would hit you with a car,” said the Como Park High School senior.
That hair story wasn’t the only tall tale Vang heard before immigrating to the United States. Once she began her life here, she learned quickly that Americans don’t feed each other to wild reptiles, everyone isn’t rich and everything is not always beautiful and nice, she said.
One thing Vang had counted on is true: She could get an education here.
And when she graduates this spring from Como Park High School, Vang plans to continue that education at one of the six colleges she has applied to, thanks in part to the help she received through Girls Getting Ahead in Leadership (GGAL), one of several programs offered by the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE).
WISE is a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 to help Asian, African and Latino immigrant women and girls succeed in this country. GGAL’s goal is to teach low-income immigrant high school girls what they need to know to get into college and how to finance it.
The group holds Saturday-afternoon workshops for 11th- and 12th-grade girls throughout the school year at its University Avenue offices. There are 25 students enrolled in the program this year and 15 mentors. Most of the girls come from high schools in the St. Paul school district; the mentors include college students seeking school credit and young adults who simply enjoy the work, said Sarah Gerdes, GGAL coordinator.
Vang’s mentor, Andrea Moen, fits into both of those categories. The University of Minnesota elementary education major joined GGAL last fall for a course that required her to earn credit for volunteering. She stayed on this semester.
“I wanted to continue at least until the end of the school year to help these girls get into college,” Moen said. “I want to see who gets in where and be excited for them when they do and help them look at alternatives if they don’t. I want to see how it all panned out with them and continue to support them.”
The 2008 Highland Park High School graduate said her parents helped her apply to colleges. The girls in GGAL don’t get that help at home, she said. “A lot of their parents don’t know anything about applying for college,” Moen said.
Moen hadn’t considered working with an immigrant population before GGAL, she said. “It’s very eye-opening, how much they’ve been through. A lot of people look down on immigrants and refugees, and then they tell you their stories and how they didn’t know any English and started school the very next day after they arrived. It’s crazy to hear about it.”
Being a mentor helped Moen see “how badly these girls want to become more literate.” So she started a book club to help them with that. Right now they are reading A Step from Heaven by An Na, the story of Young Ju who emigrates from Korea to the United States at the age of 4.
The girls read one chapter a week together after the GGAL workshop. Many of the girls “are very anxious to learn English better and become better at speaking in front of people,” Moen said. She has them take turns reading each week’s chapter out loud. “A lot of them are self-conscious about speaking in front of groups and I felt like reading would help them with that, learning new words, reading in front of each other, discussing the book.”
When Vang moved here four-and-a-half years ago, she could read and write in Hmong, but she knew no English. Two years ago, Vang transferred from St. Paul’s LEAP High School, a program that serves new arrivals to the United States or those who have limited English skills, to Como Park Senior High to be with more English-speaking students.
Vang relates very much to the protagonist in A Step from Heaven, she said. In fact, Young Ju was told that same curly-hair story.
To find out more about Women of Wise and GGAL, or to volunteer to be a mentor, contact Sarah Gerdes at 651-646-3268. You can also check out their website at www.womenofwise.org.