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Continued: Four Yangs: Rollin' in Oles

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 10, 2009 - 10:35 AM

Sandy Yang is on track to graduate from St. Olaf College this spring. And if all goes well, she'll be back for next year's ceremonies. And the year after that. And the year after that.

That's because her sister Betty (class of 2010), sister Nou ('11) and brother Kong ('12) all go to St. Olaf, too.

On a campus of 3,000 students of whom 50 are Hmong, the Yangs are putting St. Olaf in the unusual position this year of simultaneously educating four students from the same family. And not just any family, but an immigrant family just a generation removed from the Vietnam War.

It's an achievement that fills their north Minneapolis parents with pride. The couple, Chawa Yang and Mai Xiong, came to Minnesota 23 years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand.

"They are very good students," Chawa Yang said. "I hope that when they finish college, they will find a job ... and get a better life than me and my wife."

Having four siblings on campus at once is "extraordinary," said Michael Kyle, the college's vice president and dean of enrollment.

Sandy found the college in high school through a federal program run by St. Olaf that helps disadvantaged Twin Cities students go to college. She liked the school's close-knit community and small classes, and her parents had always pushed her to pursue a good education.

It's a philosophy not shared by some traditional Hmong families, in which girls sometimes marry and drop out of school when they're 15 or 16. "As a 22-year-old, I could be considered an old maid in the traditional culture," said Sandy, who is majoring in Asian studies and family studies and hopes to become a counselor.

That doesn't mean her parents were totally comfortable with her living in a dorm. The day her father drove Sandy to St. Olaf for the first time, she said, he gave her a "last-minute lecture" in which he warned her not to drink, get pregnant or succumb to peer pressure.

"He was just really worried because I was the first girl attending college away from home," she said, laughing. "I'll never forget that talk."

The Yang siblings at St. Olaf are the four youngest of 10 children. One of their older siblings has a teaching degree, one went to technical school and one attended community college, but Sandy was the first in the family to go to a private liberal arts college.

In most ways, the Yangs are typical college students. They're active in campus organizations, including Hmong Cultural Outreach and Hmong Women Dialogue. They miss home cooking. They've taken academic trips to China, Japan, South Korea, Australia -- a particular hallmark of students at the Northfield college, which has one of the highest study-abroad rates in the nation.

Having so many siblings on campus doesn't feel like a big deal to them. "It's not really new, because all of our lives, we've been attending the same schools," said Betty. Kong and Nou went to Patrick Henry High School, while she and Sandy went to Washburn. Plus, she said, "Not only do we have a family network here, but we have a lot of friends."

The Yangs don't see each other every day, though Nou and Betty are roommates this year -- an extension of the years the three girls shared a bedroom growing up in the Jordan neighborhood of Minneapolis. But they're plugged in to many of the same social networks, they end up in the same classes occasionally, and they make a point of meeting for dinner once a week.

The siblings said they're paying for college mostly through a combination of loans, scholarships and grants, and campus jobs. The Yangs don't have a lot of money, their father said, adding that he puts every dollar he can toward his children's education.

Chawa Yang, who fought for the United States during the Vietnam War, emigrated to Minnesota with his family in 1986. (Mai Xiong's first husband, father of the family's five oldest children, died during the war, Sandy said.) He got his GED in Duluth and went to a technical college, where he learned enough to get a job in a machine shop. But the family is going through tough times: Yang said he was laid off about two months ago.

Sandy, like millions of college seniors, said she's nervous about the recession. "The job market's more competitive," she said. "With a bachelor's degree, you can only do so much."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016

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