Compared with most Girl Scouts, Mai Yer Xiong, a senior at Central High School in St. Paul, was a little old to be selling cookies for the first time last year. But that didn't diminish her pride.

"To be able to approach strangers and promote my product, I just felt my confidence rising," she said.

Apparently so: Xiong applied for a scholarship to the prestigious Wellesley College and will begin classes there in the fall. She plans to study economics or political science, then go on to law school, a goal prompted in part by a Girl Scout-sponsored visit to a law firm. She credits scouting with "showing me I can accomplish just as much as anyone."

Scouting for Hmong boys in the Twin Cities got started about a decade earlier than it did for girls, but since the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys launched their Hmong Women's Circle Program in 2000, they've been catching up. The Circle emphasizes career exploration, including mentorships, as well as what program coordinator Choua Her calls a "place to celebrate their heritage in a safe all-girl environment. It's a way to get girls involved who didn't have the Brownies and Junior scouting experience."

The pressures of living biculturally, trying to balance tradition with personal goals as the larger world beckons, can be particularly hard on Hmong girls, she said: "There's an expectation that as a daughter, you don't break the rules. We're here to show them that there are ways to negotiate and still be respectful of your parents and your culture."