Seng Alex Vang of Hughson had no idea what it would take to graduate when he arrived at California State University, Stanislaus.
Vang is the oldest of 13 children. His parents, originally from Laos, didn't go to college. He had no mentors to guide him.
"College was like being thrown into the middle of the ocean, and nobody's taught you to swim," said Vang, 23. "You have to learn. You sink or swim."
Vang swam. Saturday, he'll graduate with a bachelor's degree in anthropology.
Moreover, during his time at Stanislaus State, he's put a spotlight on Hmong students by creating a statewide Hmong student magazine.
He spent four months in Washington, D.C., working for the committee that put on the Seventh Annual Hmong National Conference in Milwaukee in April.
He also began researching the role of Hmong organizations in different parts of the country, work he'll continue next fall when he enrolls in the ethnic studies graduate program at the University of California at San Diego.
Vang, who plans to become a professor, is the first Hmong student to enroll in the program.
"For me, it's just the first step," he said of graduation. "I still have hurdles to go."
Vang's feelings are common.
"Sometimes when you do things, you don't see how important it is until you reach the end," said Cho Xiong, who also will graduate from Stanislaus State Saturday. "Now that I did this, I know I can go on and do something more."
Xiong, 22, of Turlock, stayed close to home to help care for her parents. One of 10 children, she wasn't always focused on what she wanted to study. At times she thought about dropping out.
She said she had to find motivation from within.
Xiong, who served as president of the Hmong Student Association, is graduating with a bachelor's degree in sociology and plans to enter Stanislaus State's master of social work program next fall.
THEY'RE NOT ALONE
Vang and Xiong both say their successes are not theirs alone.
"It's a very big moment, not just for the student, but for the family and the community," said Kou Yang, an ethnic studies professor at Stanislaus State who became a mentor to Vang.
The tight Hmong community celebrates each graduate, such as Turlock's Mike Siong, who was the first Hmong student to receive a doctorate in education from the University of the Pacific, Yang said.
Hmong students face some common challenges. Most Hmong parents value education, but they might not have the experience or language skills to help their children through college, he said.
"They don't understand the system; they don't understand how college works, but they always understood that college would provide me with the tools to help my community," said Vang of his parents.
Vang, like many of his friends, feels a strong responsibility to return to help the community.
"You're walking through both cultures, and you're trying to preserve the best of both," Vang said.
Hmong students sometimes feel like a minority in society and a minority within Asian cultures, said Yang.
A lot of students struggle to define themselves, Vang said. He sees the Hmong students as building "a new American community."
"The Hmong community is moving in a new direction, becoming more self-sufficient," he said. "We are making contributions to America."
Bee staff writer Alejandra Navarro can be reached at 578-2339 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
-------------------- THE CEREMONY --------------------
About 1,400 of the 1,750 graduates will participate in the California State University, Stanislaus, commencement ceremony Saturday at 7:30 a.m. in the university amphitheater.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, a Modesto native, will be the keynote speaker. Alisha Caster, a psychology major from Ridgecrest in Kern County, will deliver the graduate address.
The event is free and open to the public. About 10,000 people are expected to attend.
For the first time, Stanislaus State will televise the ceremony live on Turlock's Charter Communications Channel 2 and in the Porges and Gemperle classrooms of nearby Demergasso-Bava Hall.