By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English
Maiyang Lor had just started kindergarten when she first told her Hmong refugee parents she wanted to become a teacher — even though she didn’t really know what teachers do.
Growing up in rural Appleton, Wisconsin, Lor didn’t see any Hmong teachers in the classroom. She even forgot to include “teacher” on a careers questionnaire she filled out in high school simply because she didn’t remember it as an option.
But Lor always enjoyed reading and writing, and she did remember how fun it felt to help others with reading and writing too. So when the first-generation college student came to Fresno State to study art, it didn’t take long for her to discover a literature class, switch majors, and change her direction.
“Before, I didn’t even have anyone who could help me navigate through college, and now I have a supportive network of professors, advisors, and peers who are there for me,” said Lor, who in May 2020 earned a bachelor’s degree in English Education (now English Studies).
“When you have people who lift you up and push you to try new things, they are giving you the chance to grab onto what could give you success each and every time. You don’t always have to take it, but it also never hurts to try.”
Lor said she has faced low self-esteem and low self-confidence throughout her life. But the classroom has become a place where she, now in the teacher’s position, has learned to see students (and herself) in a much different way, as individuals with different areas of strengths, weaknesses, knowledge ranges, and skillsets.
In particular, Lor credits her English 132 class — Rhetoric, Grammar, and Writing Instruction — as pivotal in her professional development. The course, designed specifically for future English teachers, examines the role of the English language and its usage in writing instruction. Students apply and extend their learning through a minimum of 30 hours of community service with local literacy organizations.
Dr. Alison Mandaville, the instructor for English 132, said Lor is one of her most thoughtful students, a deep thinker who is profoundly compassionate, someone who will offer powerful and tangible support for the diverse learners who populate the San Joaquin Valley’s secondary schools.
“Maiyang is a quiet learner, drinking in the world around her, thinking carefully about everything,” Mandaville said. “While she is somewhat quiet in class, she expresses deep analysis in her writing. And I can actually see her thinking about everything during class! She misses nothing, always responsible, always questioning.”
Mandaville said the service-learning component of the course pushed Lor for the first time to see herself as she is — a bright and skilled educator.
“Maiyang’s skills as a listener and observer actually make her an ideal candidate as a teacher,” Mandaville said.
Mandaville’s students often partner with the Fresno County Public Library’s Literacy Services program to facilitate “conversation circles.” These weekly circles pair a trained volunteer with up to five community members who are English Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, for one-on-one tutoring and to practice their conversational skills.
Lor said in her conversation circles, she bonded with elders over the topics of family and food. Most were Laotian and not fluent in English; however, due to her Hmong upbringing and familiarity with Laotian dishes, she invited the adult learners to share their language with her through whiteboard drawings and food talk. This helped them build a relationship.
Over time, Lor said, many of the adult learners confided in her about how the Vietnam War disrupted their education, which was followed by a long period of adjusting to life in the United States, finding work to survive, and taking care of their families. Before they knew it, they did not have the time or the money for school anymore, until after their children had all grown up.
This experience made her think of her own Hmong parents: her mom, a restaurant worker, and her dad, an assembly-line worker.
“While my time with the Southeast Asian adult learners was brief, their sacrifices, hopes, and dreams were impactful because it allowed me to revisit the idea of how I can help the Southeast Asian community,” Lor said. “We cannot change the past, but we can change the future through our present actions, day by day.”
Mandaville said Lor told the class that she’d learned as much or more from the participants in the conversation circles as she’d learned about teaching.
“For the first time since she started college, Maiyang said she had a chance to really spend time with and think about what Hmong and Southeast Asian immigrants of her parents’ generation had gone through,” Mandaville said, “what it meant to be part of that cultural and historical community herself.”
In this way, Lor’s elder students also became her cheerleaders.
“At that moment,” Lor said, “I felt overwhelmed by how everyone in the conversation circles believed that I could become an English teacher. In turn, I too believed it because maybe the Southeast Asian community needs more people like me.”
Lor is currently in her third and final semester as a post-baccalaureate student in the single-subject English Teaching Credential program. She has used the time to take several Hmong language classes from the Linguistics Department to improve her fluency.
This fall, to honor her work, the English Department faculty awarded Lor the inaugural Cheng Lok Chua Scholarship, which recognizes an English student whose principal interests lie in world literatures, comparative literature, and multiethnic U.S. literature.
A professor emeritus of English at Fresno State, Dr. Chua, is an immigrant from Singapore whose lifetime of critical and scholarly work in English studies and book publishing has profoundly impacted the global field of multiethnic literature and Asian-American literature, as well as multiple generations of readers and writers at the university. Chua remains connected with the English Department and students like Lor by attending and participating in campus conferences, readings, and symposia.
In addition to teaching, Lor is also a literature scholar and a creative writer.
Lor made an impression on Dr. Ashley Foster, the instructor for English 194, a topics course on Women’s Radical Art and Literature. Foster said Lor constructed a photo collage based on the Toni Morrison novel “Paradise” that brought together text and images to forge a powerful analysis with a balanced but vibrant aesthetic.
“One of the things that stands out to me about Maiyang is her creativity and remarkable design skills,” Foster said. “The layering of photos in the shape of an open heart allowed her to operate on a deeply symbolic register. She created a sophisticated scholarly argument with her design choices.”
Lor created a magazine cover called “Paradise” with a whole menu of featured topics, such as “Ruby: A ‘Paradise’ or Dystopia?” and “The Convent vs. Ruby: Desires and Suppressions.” The centerpiece of the cover was a large, heart-shaped enclosure of photos that Lor said represented the oppressed women residing in Morrison’s fictional town of Ruby and the men who aggressively opposed them.
“Above the heart is a five-petal flower, consisting of photos of the convent, and it is through this where the Ruby women escape from the enclosure in which they are controlled,” Lor said. “I also incorporated quotes from the novel that alluded to garden imagery and its opposing interpretations by the men and women of Ruby.”
Lor said the message she tried to express was that Ruby was a paradise for the men, contrary to their supposed claim. “This is shown throughout the novel by how they viewed, treated, and controlled women’s gardens, as tools of practicality or food sources that only they approved of,” Lor said. “However, the men were unable to keep flowers from sprouting.”
Lor also writes fiction of her own. She’s a member of the student club Hmong American Ink and Stories — whose acronym, HAIS, means “to say, to speak, to vocalize” in Hmong. Earlier this year, she performed her work with HAIS as part of the Fresno Writers Live show at the local Rogue Festival, and in 2019 she was a presenter for a community tribute to the late Fresno author Sherley Anne Williams at the Betty Rodriguez library.
Her stories are teeming with spirits and with inter-generational characters, and her protagonists often live between two worlds while striving to walk a path that will bring them happiness.
“My experience in HAIS has helped shape my creativity by giving me a comfortable space where I can embed some of my Hmong-American experiences into fiction,” Lor said.
“By reading works by those who are also first- or second-generation Hmong Americans, we validate each other’s experiences as Hmong Americans. This enables me to write stories where Hmong heroines aim to rise above their given identity and role in society.”
Lor’s professors agree that her deep interest in bringing literature written by and about diverse and marginalized peoples into her everyday teaching will make her stand out as a leader among area teachers.
Currently student-teaching at Clovis High School, Lor feels excited to be “finally teaching students in a classroom” after the COVID-19 pandemic led most schools into virtual instruction for more than a year. She has been happily surprised at the adaptability of both the students and herself, as she has “learned to utilize technology in ways I never thought possible.”
Lor said her experiences in English classes at Fresno State have helped her realize “how knowledge can empower marginalized voices, and, when used well, what it can do to transform lives for the better.”
For information on how you can contribute to the Cheng Lok Chua Scholarship, as the English Department builds the fund toward an endowment, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the College of Arts and Humanities development office at 559.278.7082.