This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.
By Joey Peters
MayKao Hang recalls interpreting for her family at school and the doctor’s office shortly after they arrived in 1978. She was only 6 but already comfortable bridging cultures.
“There weren’t any Hmong interpreters then, kind of like what the Oromo community is experiencing now, or what the Karen community is experiencing now,” Hang said. “When you grow up with two different languages and you’re struggling with poverty and you’re using the public school system, it tends to inform how you see the world.”
Those life experiences were vital to her the past nine years as CEO of the Wilder Foundation. They’ll be equally important as she takes over in a few weeks as founding dean of the new College of Health at the University of St. Thomas.
Hang’s work leading social programs at Wilder — including one that gives cash aid to families struggling to make housing payments — made her a natural choice to run the new health-focused college, said St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan.
“At the broadest level, we want to help develop new models of wellness and health care delivery that are available to all and affordable by all,” said Sullivan. “So certainly we want to understand the complexities of disparities and eliminate those disparities.”
The college will include a new nursing program together with the university’s existing mental health counseling and social work programs. It’ll likely be housed on the St. Thomas campus in Minneapolis.
Hang said she’ll focus on how the college will train a new generation of health providers to keep the state’s changing demographics in mind. Cultural competency will be a part of the curriculum.
“Nearly 100 percent of the growth of the future is going to come from populations of color,” she said. “So we need to change. We need to devise solutions for people to stay healthy in new and different ways.”
Hang also wants the college to focus on the growing population of nontraditional students — those who aren’t entering college at 18 and graduating at 22. She anticipates the new college will attract older people seeking mid-career changes.
She said she’ll also work to build on the spirit of her Wilder programs. One she’s most proud of is training St. Paul public school teachers to look differently at students in trauma.
“If you’re a classroom teacher and see a kid who looks like they may be misbehaving,” she said, “you don’t know what the child was going through the night before.”
The Wilder initiative, she added, trains teachers to not automatically punish the students and “suspend judgement and understand where the child may be coming from.”
Hang, who holds a doctorate in public administration from Hamline University, a master’s degree in social policy from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a bachelor’s from Brown University, isn’t new to academia. But this will be her first time working exclusively inside a higher education institution. She welcomes the new challenge.
“I’ve been in a position throughout my career where I’ve had the privilege and honor of addressing how our systems ought to change,” she said. “I’m looking forward to doing that in higher ed.”