“With an education comes some form of power. And that power can be used to do a lot of good.” – Talee Vang

I’m not going to lie; the interview I did with the incredible St. Thomas human you’re about to meet had my heart soaring and my mind spinning – so much so I received my first speeding ticket in 30 years while driving home after our chat at SpyHouse coffee in North Minneapolis. Yep, the adrenaline was flowing and my foot was obviously pressing out the extra energy.

It was well worth it, because Talee Vang is one pretty fascinating young woman: a doctoral student in counseling psychology, the mother of three young children, born in a Thai refugee camp, granddaughter of one of General Vang Pao’s closest confidants, a woman unafraid to speak up about what’s wrong with the world, and a poet (in all of her “free” time). The rest of her story … well … is best told in her own delightful words.

Tell us all about you!

There’s so much to tell! So my name is Talee Vang and I’m Hmong. I was born in Thailand in a refugee camp and my family and I moved here to Minnesota when I was 2. … I have three kids: five, four and 15 months. My partner is Hmong as well; he was born in Thailand in a different refugee camp, and lived in Michigan for quite a while. I’ve been married for – I don’t know – since 2008, and I’m really bad at math! So seven years.

What’s your spouse’s first name?

Chai! He likes to say, “like the tea!” He’s so corny.

You’re earning your doctorate while raising three kids – that’s not easy.

It has gotten easier. I will say, at the beginning it was difficult. When I went into the master’s program my daughter, Evera, was six months. One of the biggest reasons why I decided to start: my partner is very smart, upper-management level, M.B.A., and I thought: “I need to do this because I need my daughter to know that she can do this, too.” It’s larger than me, and that’s what helps me.

It sounds like you and your husband really work together and have a beautiful relationship.

Yeah, it takes a lot of work – I feel like nobody talks about that! … I’m a feminist, and one of the things that I’ve just struggled with is how you are a feminist in a patriarchal society. And I mean the expectations of a Hmong daughter-in-law – it’s so hard.

Talk about your dad’s role in raising you as a strong, highly educated Hmong woman?

I remember going to my dad and saying, “I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know what to do.” I didn’t like navigating through all these people telling me to know my place. But my dad, in public, in the community, helps lead this navigation. He speaks to me with respect and as an equal, and when others see that, he really sets the stage. … These are the parts of the Hmong culture that don’t get talked about; you don’t hear about all the ways the community works for you and pulls you up. These are things that I want to talk about!

What’s your dream job?

Once I’m done with the doctorate program, I’ll be licensed at that level. … I want to practice, but not full time. I want to teach, but not full time. I love research because there’s not enough research in the places I think there should be. … Other people can’t know about my history, my people’s history, these societies, if nobody’s writing about it. And there’s a difference between coming from an environment and writing and doing research on that environment, as opposed to someone coming from the outside and doing research on it.

So true! It’s really cool you’re committed to giving voice to those who don’t have one or have been silenced.

I’m pretty vocal – I have a lot of strong opinions! And you know, as I’m growing and learning, I’m learning to question a lot more. I know that there is a line between pushing too much. One of the things that I’ve been kind of thinking about is when you talk about the majority and you talk about stats, you talk about it in terms of the mean. I always wonder, “Who are the outliers? Who are the minority?” You know – I’m a woman, I’m Hmong, I’m a minority on so many levels and to me I want to be able to study things and do things and really bring a voice to that.

Say a brag about yourself!

Gosh, let me see. Okay, I write really good poems about whatever is really pressing for me. I’ve seen the influence my poems have had on people who I’ve never met before, and that is something I’m really proud of.

Your biggest fear?

I’m afraid of not leaving a legacy. Are you familiar with General Vang Pao? My grandfather grew up with him and basically mentored him. When the U.S. came over and recruited the Hmong people to help fight along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, when General Vang Pao decided to help the U.S. people and basically speak on behalf of the Hmong people, he consulted my grandfather.

Your grandfather sounds like a pretty incredible role model.

He died in 2006. I met him once – I was so lucky. But I barely knew him. And I never really even knew this history until I was older because we don’t learn this history in school. So this is a part of who I am and I want to have a life that is meaningful – that touches more than just me.

Describe your dream day.

At an all-inclusive spa. I want a massage, I want a hot tub. It’s been so crazy lately – I need a break!

What’s your dissertation going to be about?

One of my mentors was like, “You don’t need to change the world,” and I was like, “I need to change the world!” But it’s going to be on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory Restructured Form, and looking at Hmong norms to see if there is test bias or not. It’s really fun!

What drives you crazy about humans?

People’s unwillingness to look at their own flaws.

Favorite teacher ever?

Dr. Kerry Frank. He retired from St. Thomas last year. He taught me to believe in myself, to believe in my experience.

Something you cannot live without?

Pepper. Like, spicy Thai pepper.

Something you can live without?

Butter cream frosting. I love whipped cream – that lighter sweet. But when it’s overpowering: no.

Best gift you’ve ever received?

There are so many! Best gift. I would say honestly, the gift of higher education.

* * *

So, can you now see why I might have been going a little (just a mere 17 mph) over the speed limit on Broadway Avenue in Minneapolis? What you read above is just the tip of the Talee Vang iceberg of awesomeness. I propose she write an autobiography some day – and I call dibs on first in line for a copy.

As always, keep sending your tips on cool humans inhabiting our cool campus to cjbruess@stthomas.edu. We’ll be back with more HOST features in the fall.

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4 Responses

  1. Maria

    I rarely have time to read an entire article these days, but this was worth every minute! So inspiring to hear somebody who wants to change the world and leave a legacy, who realizes the importance of a woman’s contribution to the world

    • Carol

      Maria – You should invite Talee for a cup of coffee; you’ll be further inspired! She’s absolutely INCREDIBLE. Just don’t drive too fast on your way home.
      Carol

  2. Nathan

    Carol, I love reading your Humans of St. Thomas pieces. With Talee’s I feel like you have set a new standard for this series. Great work and what an encouragement to read! Thank you!

    • Carol

      Nathan – That’s so kind. Thank you for reading. I wish I could spend a year writing a daily HOST column. We have countless inspiring humans at UST; wouldn’t it be cool to learn a bit about every one of them?