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The atrium of the Community School of Excellence in St. Paul was buzzing on the last Friday morning of the year, as students, faculty, and parents anticipated the arrival of Payengxa Lor, Miss Universe Laos, as part of her U.S. tour.
Payengxa, who will represent Laos in the 71st Miss Universe competition on January 14 in New Orleans, Louisiana, is ethnically Hmong and has garnered global support from the Hmong diaspora.
Kazoua Kong-Thao, the school’s chief administrative officer, instructed students and parents on what to do when Payengxa walked in. Students dressed in traditional Hmong garb flanked the entryway to welcome her.
Miss Hmong Minnesota, Leeanna Lauj (Lor), and the two runner-ups, Nkauj Mog Yaj (Yang) and Nkauj See Thoj (Thao), in their sashes and tiaras, also awaited Payengxa.
Once she arrived, Payengxa was met with applause and cheers from the school’s staff, students, and parents. They assembled themselves into a line for photos and selfies with the Miss Universe competitor, who greeted them with smiles and embraces.
Kazoua then gave Payengxa a tour of the Community School of Excellence, showcasing its efforts to promote and preserve Hmong culture.
The school was founded in 2007 by community members concerned about the loss of language and cultural knowledge Hmong children were experiencing in Minnesota. The Hmong language and culture charter school now has more than 1,500 students in pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, and about 160 staff members.
Before working at the Community School of Excellence, Kazoua served on the St. Paul School Board. She also worked as equity and diversity director for Minneapolis Public Schools. In 2012, she was recruited by the Community School of Excellence to help with its expansion.
For Kazoua, the school is a place where Hmong children can find a place in the diaspora.
“Our children are learning the language, they’re learning the culture, and embracing what it means to be Hmong American in the United States. What it means to be Hmong in Minnesota,” she said.
Payengxa expressed delight in the cultural pride showcased throughout the school in the form of artwork and clothing worn by the students.
“I feel like I’m home,” she said. “I feel so impressed that wherever they are, they still remain who they are. They still always remember where they come from and who they are. They still keep all the culture, the language. I feel very happy seeing them love who they are and be proud of who they are.”
This trip was Payengxa’s first to the United States, although she is familiar with this country’s large Hmong immigrant population. Payengxa said she has extended family in Minnesota who have told her about the winters.
“What I heard and what I know is that Minnesota during the winter is so cold and it has snow,” she said, laughing. “And I have never seen snow. I was so excited to see snow.”
Education as inspiration
Payengxa’s visit to the school came together through Kazoua’s friendship with Shang Thao Berg, a local community leader. Weeks ago, Shang reached out to Kazoua with news of Payengxa’s visit and interest in touring a Hmong school. Although her visit was to occur during the school’s winter break, Kazoua was determined to plan an event to welcome Payengxa.
“I pulled [in] some student leadership and student council [members], some parent board members and staff,” Kazoua said. “We wanted her to have a little taste of what it’s like at Community School of Excellence, and we also wanted to show her that her dreams … have come to realization in the United States.”
An art and English teacher back home, Payengxa wants to open a school in Laos that would provide Hmong children with a quality education on par with that being received by their peers in the West.
Payengxa was born in a mountainous village in Laos. Her family grew rice and operated a farm until her father found an opportunity to move to a city. There, she would receive better schooling, which opened her mind to the world and what it had to offer, she said.
Payengxa hopes to spark that kind of inspiration in other children through their education.
“My passion is to work hard to do something so I can help others and set an example to pave the way for them to see that, ‘oh, life is more than that.’ You can do whatever … you set your mind to,” she said.
During Payengxa’s tour of the Community School of Excellence, Kazoua answered her questions about the technology available for students and explained how products such as a smartboard and laptops could elevate the education of students in Payengxa’s region and “level the playing field.”
“I shared with her my experience of going to Laos and visiting over 20 schools. Many of the schools were teaching computers, but there was no computer in sight,” she said. “How do you teach computers when there’s no computer? How do you teach about world history when there’s no map?”
Kazoua said about 85 percent of her school’s students receive free or reduced-price lunches, but that she and other faculty members work to ensure that students don’t feel that they’re lacking compared to other schools.
Celebrating with dance
After touring the school, Payengxa was led to the school’s gymnasium, where its dance teams put on a traditional dance performance for her and the Miss Hmong Minnesota winners.
The three groups are divided by level and gender: Tub Phaj Ej is the boy’s dance team, Ntxhais Ci Nplas the intermediate dance team, and Ntxhais Ceej Tsheej the advanced dance team. The advanced team has performed at locations such as the Minnesota State Capitol, the State Fair, and Target Center in Minneapolis.
Students from North St. Paul’s Cypher Side Dance School, led by Lue Thao, also joined the performance, showcasing a modern take with their breakdancing moves.
Insai Vangsoua, whose son performed with the Cypher Side group, said he brought his children to meet Miss Universe Laos as an example of how far Hmong people have come.
“Everyone is familiar with the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’” he said. “Well, you know what, it takes an entire community to raise someone to be at this level. I think it’s extremely important that not only is she here, but our community is also here to welcome and support her and acknowledge the achievement that she’s made.”
Born in Thailand and raised in France, Insai grew up in the United States without any exposure to Hmong culture. Because of that, he invests moments like Friday’s with importance. He sees how far the community has come, but believes that people like Payengxa have taken the culture to new heights.
“You know that the playing field now is not so one-sided anymore, and those of us who grew up as you and I have, we know the playing field has never been in our favor,” he said. “Seeing someone of their background that looks like them and that speaks the same language as they do represent them—not just at a national level but the world level—is something that is amazing.”
Payengxa’s accomplishment as Miss Universe Laos brings pride to Hmong people worldwide, Kazoua said.
“I see her as a young sister who’s coming up and who’s bringing success,” she said. “And it’s not only in the United States, but the success of one Hmong person—regardless if you live in Laos or Thailand or Vietnam or wherever—it’s the success of all Hmong people.”