Community organizer and Burma refugee
“I came to the United States in 2004. I feel like I have multiple identities because my parents were born in Burma, but then I grew up in Thailand; I'm Karen, and now I'm an American.
“My family came when I was 9 years old. I don't know much about my parents except their history of coming from Burma to Thailand, but I remember my experience living in Thailand, growing up there and then coming to America. It was a whole different level of culture shock. But eventually, you learn to accept different cultures.
“When I was in Thailand, I learned English a little bit, but it wasn't to the point where I could speak in a full sentence. It was just basic stuff. When I first came to America, I was the only Karen student in my entire elementary school. I remember not knowing anybody because 2004 was when the first wave of Karen refugees came. As more Karen people arrived, they came from refugee camps where they already knew each other. I grew up in Thailand; I didn't really go to a proper Karen school. I didn't know how to read or write Karen. I only knew how to speak. When I went to church or when I was asked to read or write something in Karen, I wouldn't know how and then my peers would make fun of me.
“I didn't really find my place until I went to college. I went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. During that time, I had a lot of questions about myself and sometimes I felt like I didn't really know who I was. I had to deal with my own identity crisis and embrace all the identities that I have. There are a lot of opportunities for the younger generation to actually do something for the community. So, knowing who you are is really important.
“Being able to go to college – and finishing college – is my biggest accomplishment. As a first-generation college student, you don't have that many resources to help you push forward. You don't really have a mentor to help you. You're just pretty much on your own. Luckily, I have older siblings that guided me through that. But we're all first-generation students, so being able to graduate from college was a big moment for our parents.
“Sometimes people expect a lot from us, especially our parents. They expect that we are supposed to do this and that but, you know, just try not to give up because we're working really hard. Don't be discouraged, just continue to work hard and accomplish your goals.”