By Kacey Sycamore

When Jasmine Vang came to Chico State fresh out of high school, things didn’t go so well.

A Butte County local, she wasn’t excited about attending the university in her backyard, and while she excelled at science, pursuing a geology degree felt passionless.

“I was always debating whether or not I wanted to make a lot of money or do something that I really enjoyed,” she said.

She ended up dropping out of school after a couple semesters due to a low GPA. It wasn’t until she returned several years later that she realized choosing meaning over money was the key to transforming into a straight-A student with a love for what she was learning.

Graduating this May with degrees in sociology and philosophy—and the first in her family to complete a four-year degree—Vang found her place in departments that examine how people feel about their place in society and what might be done to improve the system.

“My heart is really with the people,” she said. “I feel like my life really revolves around others, and that’s really what it was about, was just feeling like I finally met and was with other people who felt that same way.”

Her favorite sociology course was “Critical Sociology,” which does just what the title implies: criticizes. What about society is holding people back? How can the system be improved?

Coming from a low-income area with low-income school districts, Vang said she’s seen and experienced firsthand the negativity that pervades people’s outlooks, and how limited resources further entrench people in the lower class. It wasn’t until she came to Chico State and started talking to others that she learned some school districts have programs like Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) that prepare middle and high school students for college eligibility and success.

Reflecting on the disparities, Vang decided she wants to become a high school teacher and teach logic, critical thinking, and life management—tools to help students pursue their goals.

“So many of the students who are in lower-income districts [are] lacking information about how to pursue their goals and their dreams, but also about credit, how to apply for loans, what loans they should be applying for, interest rates, and all these things that are part of this system that keeps them in that lower class, unable to move up,” she said.

A first-generation student, Vang herself didn’t realize when she first came to Chico State the amount of resources that were available to her. It still wasn’t always easy to succeed—at times she wasn’t receiving financial aid and had to work full time—but she says the university experience allowed her to grow, explore, and make personal connections that will last a lifetime.

“I feel like my education is really well-rounded,” she said. “I feel like I really got the opportunity to explore myself, explore my options, and just meet so many amazing people.”

During her time at Chico State, she studied abroad in England, played clarinet and French horn in the University band, competed in the Ethics Bowl competition, worked in Academic Advising, and spackled her schedule with art, music, and kinesiology courses. In her professors, she says she’s found a set of people who will continuously support her.

“One of the things that most impresses me about Jasmine is her wide-ranging mind. I have spent many hours in conversation with her about all kinds of subjects, often completely unrelated to class,” said philosophy professor Zanja Yudell. “Talking to Jasmine feels like talking to a colleague—she is deeply curious and very thoughtful. It has been a joy to have her in the department.”

Sociology professor Nik Janos echoed the sentiment, noting Vang has a “tremendous intellectual curiosity” and that she’s “always asking deep questions and making astute observations.”

“Her quest to know more, and to think critically, has got her to this point and it will carry her much further,” he said.

Jasmine Vang poses with her grandmother in traditional Hmong dress.
Jasmine Vang says her grandmother, Yeng Her Vang, is an incredibly strong woman who encourages her to work her hardest.

A half-Hmong college student and daughter of immigrants, Vang says graduating with two degrees is significant. Her grandmother in particular, who’s from Thailand, has always reminded Vang to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to her by a life in the United States.

“I wasn’t originally going to walk at all for graduation, but then I thought about how huge it is for her as well, and how much it means to her that, you know, I’ve accomplished something really big,” she said.

She’s disappointed that this year’s ceremony will only be held virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the milestone is so important to her and her family that she already looks forward to participating in the in-person ceremonies next spring for Class of 2020 students, including the special celebration for Asian and Pacific Islander students.

Though she’ll still be in school for the next couple years earning her teaching credential, Vang said completing her bachelor’s degrees brings with it a bit of quarter-life crisis anxiety.

“It’s crazy for me to be moving on and saying OK, this is it. You didn’t get your degree in science. You got your degree in a social study, in humanities, so this is it,” she said.

But she tries, as always, to not let her thinking be black and white—and to remember her own advice.

“Sometimes I worry about my choices,” she said, “But like I tell all the students who come into advising [and] don’t know what to get their degree in, I always say, ‘Get a degree in something you love because, honestly, that’s what matters in the long run.’”

Kacey Sycamore works as a freelance writer, editor, and producer for public media organizations in Northern California. A Chico State journalism alum, she and her husband recently moved back to Chico to start a family.