Twenty years ago, Ron Her and 14 other Hmong teens took a class to prepare for their move from a Thai refugee camp to America. Then they scattered across the United States.
Some quickly realized the class — some English grammar, some practical skills such as using a modern shower — had offered the most basic preparation. But when Her, a Minneapolis physician, and others set out to plan a reunion this year, they found the former classmates had done really well for themselves.
“We’ve all tried to pursue the American dream as much as we could,” Her said.
Her’s class at the Phanat Nikhom camp might have been primed for success: All camp youngsters took a test to gauge their English skills, and the 15 were the highest scorers.
“We bonded really quickly,” said Yang Xiong, another Minnesota-based graduate.
But the teens also shared a resolve to beat expectations. Her started as a ninth-grader in Wisconsin. His reading skills were at the third-grade level, and he had gaping academic gaps. He remembers sleeping three or four hours a night on average: “I devoted my whole life to studying.”
By his senior year, Her was taking only college-credit classes. At Edison High School in Minneapolis, Yang had a similar trajectory. He went on to earn a bachelor’s in three years, serve in the Army National Guard and earn a doctorate from the University of Minnesota. He runs his own pharmacy in Minneapolis.
The group is reuniting this summer in Las Vegas. As the classmates started reconnecting this year, they found each had succeeded in his own way: from carpenter to computer whiz, from community leaders who officiate at traditional weddings to some who yearn to reconnect with Hmong roots. Her’s brother, Peter, is a doctoral candidate active in state politics.
“We have a very diverse group,” Yang said.