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Minnesota Sounds and Voices: U's homework help benefits Mpls. Hmong kids

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Jay Clark leads session
Tutoring coordinator Jay Clark, center, at the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs leads a research session.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

On Sunday evenings, a small group of Hmong kids pile into a van in north Minneapolis that takes them to the University of Minnesota for tutoring lessons. 

Once there, they file into cubicles and log on to computers. On a recent Sunday, homework help coordinator Jay Clark cracked a verbal whip over the heads of some of them.

"You've got three minutes to get your homework out and working on it," Clark told the rowdy group.  

Yue Vang, 13, came to this country seven years ago. He's taking physics, world studies and pre-calculus at Hopkins High School. The information in class goes by fast and he needs the Sunday night homework help, he said.

"School is kind of hard, and my English is not so good for the school work," he said.

Over the past four years more than a hundred north Minneapolis Hmong residents have benefited from the homework help program. Some of the students who received help have gone on to college and a few have become tutors in the program, which is part of the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs Center for Neighborhood Organizing. It's funded with money from the McKnight and Pohlad Family foundations.


Kaoxue Vang, Yue Vang's 18-year-old sister, got homework help for years. Now she's a first-year student at the University of Minnesota and giving back as a tutor.

She got financial aid, scholarships and loans to enroll and pay the added expense of living on campus in a dorm. 

Kaoxue Vang and the other students have chosen education as a way to improve their life. That means in some cases turning away from traditional roles of what's expected of the family's oldest daughter — like cooking or cleaning.

Kaoxue Vang
Eighteen-year-old Kaoxue Vang got homework help as a student, and now as a first year university student is tutoring young people.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"It's kind of a selfish decision," Kaoxue Vang said. "But I was thinking that in college I need to like more time to homework and concentration and quiet time to do homework."

Kaoxue Vang and most of the younger students here were born in a refugee camp in Thailand. 

The camp closed nearly a decade ago. The Hmong families were granted political asylum in this country because of the threat of retribution they face in their homeland of Laos for aiding the U.S. government during the Vietnam war.

Thousands of the residents were resettled in Minnesota — the final wave of the Hmong resettlement that began more than 30 years ago.

Program coordinator Yia Yang said the work ethic among the families is strong. He said some of the students parents work two jobs and are seldom home. Yang said isolation is a problem as adults and young people tend to keep to themselves instead of meeting neighbors. 

Kaoxue Vang said the isolation is compounded by a lack of transportation, a strange culture and the difficulty of learning a new language. Vang said the isolation can lead to depression.   


Jay Clark said the idea for helping Hmong young people came to him six years ago when two Hmong students approached him at a drinking fountain.

"I asked them what school they went to and I asked them how they liked it and I expected them to say they it's great they loved it and they said, 'we're getting hit,'" he said.

Clark said when he learned that Hmong kids are likely targets for abuse because they are short and don't speak much English, he organized the tutoring program.

Chang Yang got help as a high schooler.

Now 18 and a first-year student at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College interested in studying accounting, Yang said he returns for additional help.

"I need to learn how regular students are learning and how they are doing, so our English can get better," Chang Yang said.

Clark said thousands of young people from immigrant families in Minnesota need similar help.