Diversity and Democracy

The Ripple Effect: Returning Adult Students Learning with Alumni

“A good citizen is conscious of and makes efforts to think beyond themselves and to think about the community.”

—Mary Vang, Metropolitan State University alumna

On September 23, 2013, alumna Mary Vang sat down with two students from a required writing course at Metropolitan State University, a midsize urban public university in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with a growing immigrant population and an average student age of thirty-two. After graduating from Metropolitan State University’s master’s program in Public and Nonprofit Administration, Vang became director of a college readiness program called GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs). Today, she is program director of TRIO Student Support Services at Saint Paul College.

The students conducting the interview, Myrna Abrego and Kei Tilander, were transfer students just beginning an undergraduate Urban Teacher Program. Both were typical Metropolitan State University students: adults with families, careers, and higher education experiences characterized by hardship and discontinuity. They chose to work together and to interview Vang due to their mutual interest in education.

With inspiration and guidance from the national Citizen Alum initiative, I worked with Jodi Bantley from Metropolitan State University’s Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship ​to develop a Citizen Alum course module for my general education writing class. Through this module, students worked in pairs to interview alumni involved in solving problems in their communities.

Metropolitan State University is not a residential college; most students are firmly rooted in local communities before attending the university, and they take their college experiences, ideas, and skills back to those communities.

The interview project was meant to help students practice conducting original research; it also provided mentorship for students striving to balance college demands, professional goals, and investment in local communities. As a civically engaged alumna, Vang could give advice and inspiration to students contemplating how to finish college and pursue meaningful careers.

The Conversation

When Abrego and Tilander asked Vang how her college education influenced her civic engagement, she replied, “[After] being a student here, I feel like I care about what’s going on beyond myself. . . . I see how whatever I do is going to impact the world. It’s those drops in the bucket that I’m very conscious of now, and even if I’m just working with one school and [a small group of] students, I know that someday it’s going to have a ripple effect.”

Vang emphasized qualities of a liberal education that encourage students to become engaged community members. “Every single faculty member [at Metropolitan State University] incorporated some kind of project where we had to do something with the community, or somebody from the community was a speaker for the class,” she said. “A liberal arts education . . . gives you the ability and the knowledge to want to do something for your community and a desire to contribute to the common good.”

Although Vang admitted to not feeling destined to do community engagement work, she attributed her interest in public problem solving to her role models and mentors, in addition to her liberal arts education. She explained her desire to provide the same kind of support she received as a first-generation college student:

There was this high school counselor who held my hand and really walked me through everything. . . . She even supplied me with all the stuff I needed for my first year of dorm life, like the shower [caddy], because my mom didn’t know what it would take to live [on] campus. So it really started there. . . . You see the need and you want to be that person for all those students.

Vang’s identity as a Hmong woman is an important aspect of her role as an agent of change for students in the GEAR UP program and in the Hmong community. “That’s part of my life: being, knowing, and growing up in this community that is so rich and beautiful and, at the same time, has so much need,” she said.

During their interview, Vang also spoke honestly with Abrego and Tilander about the challenges of learning how to dedicate her time and energy to her career, family, profession, and community: “[It] has been a hard balancing act because the more I’m asked to give at work to my community, the more I’m needed at church, too, [and] the more my family [relies] on me.”

The Students’ Journeys

Like many of her fellow students, Abrego arrived at Metropolitan State University after several educational setbacks. She grew up in the Twin Cities and attended a university in northern Minnesota just after high school. She recalled her experience in a class on race and gender:

The topic, of course, was immigration, and everybody was against it. I don’t think what the professor understood was you’re talking about my parents. You’re talking about my uncle, my mom, my grandma. It’s personal. And actually, that was the last day I attended that class. I dropped. I just stopped going. I lost my scholarship.

After having two children and spending seventeen years working at the Saint Paul School District Bilingual Education Office and several years as an administrator for the Saint Paul Public Schools, Abrego enrolled in the Urban Teacher Program at Metropolitan State University:

At Metro, I feel like I’m not the only one. I’m not the youngest, I’m not the oldest, I’m not the only Latina voice that the professors have heard, I’m not the only mother, I’m not the only wife, I’m not the only divorcée. It’s so liberating. . . . I really like participating [in class] and showing what I’ve learned throughout my life.

For Abrego, interviewing Vang was an opportunity to celebrate both cultural difference and shared civic goals:

I remember thinking about how she really connects to Hmong culture and brings in her community. She connects to it through her own experience, which is similar to mine. I think that because of our experiences we maybe put a little bit more power or effort into it, knowing that if those [services] are not in place, if they don’t happen, then more people will live what we did. We don’t want someone else to suffer like that.

Abrego identified with Vang and found needed inspiration in her college journey. “It definitely was reassuring. It was inspirational,” she said. “To know that she had [grown up] like me, and she was able to work and come to school, and now she’s done. . . . I thought, okay, I can do this.” The theme that has emerged most powerfully from the Citizen Alum interview project is the impact of intergenerational mentorship (among students who are at different points in their educational or professional lives) on student success.

Tilander also took inspiration from the interview with Vang. Like many students at our nontraditional university, Tilander wanted to attend college right after high school, but financial and familial obstacles stood in the way. After getting married, having two children, and helping her husband to complete his degree, she enrolled and completed an associate’s degree at a community college before applying to the Urban Teacher Program at Metropolitan State University. She worked as a teaching assistant with middle school students in the Saint Paul Public Schools during her time at the university and is now a student intervention teacher in California’s San Juan Unified School District.

When, several years after the Citizen Alum interview, I asked Abrego and Tilander to tell me what most influenced them about their conversation with Vang, Tilander immediately replied, “I still think about her quote that I loved. A drop in the bucket. The ripples. It always stuck with me. Our small actions matter. Our actions do have a ripple effect.”

Our conversation was interrupted as a former student of Abrego’s from Saint Paul Public Schools, sixteen or seventeen years old, walked by. He and Abrego greeted each other in Spanish. Abrego returned to our conversation concerned and a bit distracted. “He told me his sister has a baby,” she said. “She’s younger than him. Had she been in my school, we would have helped somehow.”

In this moment, I realized the power of our students’ deep, unwavering connections to and investment in their communities. Their evolving relationships are enhanced by and contribute to the educational experience at Metropolitan State University. With a new appreciation and understanding of civic engagement, our students and alumni will continue to have an impact on their communities.

Danielle Hinrichs is Associate Professor and Director of Academic Writing at Metropolitan State University.

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