Pa Nhia Her

Pa Nhia Her grew up playing with the plaster and tools in her father's dental lab, and it turned into a calling. Now a senior at St. Catherine University in St. Paul majoring in biology, she plans to go to dental school and perhaps continue training to become an oral surgeon.

Like many millennials, she worries about college debt — already at $40,000 and growing. But her broader fear is that her generation will be left behind. Census data show that the Hmong trail other groups in getting college degrees.

"We keep saying the second generation doesn't have support because their parents haven't gone to school — and that it's expensive," said Her, 21. "But we shouldn't use that as an excuse. If you want to be somebody, get that education first."

As she pursues a career that will far surpass her father's, Her is determined to hang on to Hmong traditions. The oldest of six children, she is the only one fluent in Hmong. Her father is a shaman, a traditional spiritual healer, and she wants him to teach her Hmong folk songs to continue the legacy of passing down oral traditions.

"My parents are transitioning and speak a lot more English," said Her, who was born in Minneapolis. "The little ones understand only a little Hmong, but can't speak it or read or write it."

Her's parents recently moved with her younger siblings — who are 6, 9 and 10 — to a farm in Stanchfield, Minn. Her father's weak English skills made it increasingly difficult to navigate work as a dental lab technician, she said, especially as the field has become more tech-driven.

"He misses being in Laos and Thailand, and having his own land and animals," she said. "It's sad to think that my dad is only in his early 40s but feels like he has to retire."

Her, who was Miss Hmong Minnesota in 2012, credits the pageant with raising her awareness of Hmong history and influencing her desire to make an impact. She dreams of launching a global dental relief program to provide free care in Southeast Asia.

"There's no program in Laos or Thailand," she said. "I want to start that for the Hmong community."

Jackie Crosby