Maikhou ThaoBy Maikhou Thao (junior, Sociology)

This blog was originally posted by Better Make Room, First Lady Michelle Obama’s college opportunity campaign that celebrates education and elevates the voices of Gen-Z students.

Hmong American. Female. Low-income. First-generation college student. Together these invisible and subordinate identities describe my experience with adversity along my journey to college. I am the tenth child out of eleven, and my story begins in the small town of Oroville, California. As Vietnam War refugees in the United States during the 1980’s, my parents made the sacrifice of leaving home in hopes of a better future for their children. For this reason, I attribute much of my motivation for success to my parents. Like them, I have encountered hardships along my journey to college. In elementary school, I was placed in ESL courses, which felt like a constant reminder that I was different. I had to deal with this challenge, in addition to living in poverty — wearing oversized hand-me-downs from thrift stores, digging through dumpsters for recycling, using food stamps, and sharing a cramped three-bedroom home with twelve other people. I was not always proud of my story.

Today, I recognize that accepting reality was my largest hurdle yet. My early education failed to teach me how to survive in a world where I was different from those around me. Coming from a background where going to school was the least of my concerns, I knew against all odds that nobody could take away my education. Although my parents did not go to college and could not speak fluent English, they constantly reminded me that if I work hard enough in my studies and everything else, the possibilities of getting out of my predicament was endless.

“Despite my background, my education gave me the opportunity to prove my capabilities and leveled the playing field for me.”

My education helped me overcome the adversities in my life. School was where I fostered my determination to work hard. I proved my excellence through academics, holding a position as one of the top-10 students in my class all four years of high school and making the Dean’s List for the past two years at California State University, Chico.

A group of students sits on top of the California State University, Chico sign.Despite my background, my education gave me the opportunity to prove my capabilities and leveled the playing field for me. Thankfully, my college education gave me the language to describe the challenges that shaped me into the strong individual that I am today. As a Sociology major, I have the chance to learn how society functions and many times creates disadvantages and injustices for communities like my own.

“More important is the notion that education goes beyond the classroom.”

More important is the notion that education goes beyond the classroom. My passion for social change and advocacy stems from overcoming these adversities and applying my knowledge in the real world passing along knowledge for future generations. I firmly believe that in order to not repeat history, one must learn from it and do something about it. During my junior year, I will be working as a paraprofessional at the Cross-Cultural Leadership Center at California State University, Chico, where I will continue to advocate and support students with similar struggles to my own, by being a voice that champions change and injustice.

A group of Cross-Cultural Leadership Center students and staff in red shirts.