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Chemistry major helping area youth see value in Blugold Beginnings, higher education

| Judy Berthiaume

Mai Yer Yang can relate to the old saying about not seeing what’s right in front of you.

After all, Yang has been hearing about Blugold Beginnings since she was a young girl, but never could see the opportunities it offered her while she was growing up in Eau Claire.

“I always knew about Blugold Beginnings, but I wasn’t interested in being part of it,” Yang, now a junior chemistry major at UW-Eau Claire, says of the university’s program. “I saw it as something for kids who needed help, and I didn’t want people to think I needed help. I wanted to be in the gifted and talented program, not Blugold Beginnings.”

However, once she got to college, she began to realize just how many opportunities she missed by ignoring a program that offers everything from mentoring and tutoring to college planning and preparation, all with the goal of inspiring young people — especially underrepresented, low- income or first-generation students — to believe that college is attainable.

“Blugold Beginnings opens so many doors for me that I didn’t know that I could open,” Yang says of the program. “I get to be a mentor, which I love. I’m making connections in the community and I’ve met so many people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Those are all really good things that are possible because of Blugold Beginnings.”

Now an intern in the Blugold Beginnings office, Yang is working to help other area youth see and embrace the opportunities that she missed when she was growing up.

As an intern, Yang is planning a Blugold Beginnings Eighth Grade Tour Day, which will bring 400 students from two Eau Claire middle schools to campus on April 29. The eighth graders will be immersed in the campus for the day, inspiring them to set their own college goals.

The tour days, once an annual part of Blugold Beginning programming, were eliminated in recent years because of budget constraints. Organizers are bringing the tour day back this year, though it will include a smaller number of middle schoolers and be limited to just one day.

As an intern, Yang’s responsibilities include helping to plan the day’s programming for the 400 middle schoolers, figuring out logistics and lining up nearly 100 volunteers.

“My goal for the day is that the eighth graders who come will realize that college is an opportunity that is attainable and important, which isn’t always easy to see when you’re a minority student,” says Yang.

While Yang wasn’t part of Blugold Beginnings growing up, in a roundabout way, the program is the reason she is a Blugold.

Yang first learned about Blugold Beginnings when, as a young girl, her family became neighbors with Jodi Thesing-Ritter, who founded and continues to oversee the program at UW-Eau Claire.

Yang’s older sister, Kalia Yang, was interested in college but unsure how to get there.

Thesing-Ritter walked her through the process, and Kalia became the first in her family to go to college. Kalia Yang, who graduated in 2014 with a degree in chemistry, now works as a lab tech at Nestle in Eau Claire.

Her big sister’s success inspired her to also want to go to college, Yang says, noting that like her sister, she’s always loved chemistry.

“Had Jodi and Blugold Beginnings not been there for her, my sister would not have gone to college,” Yang says. “And that means I wouldn’t be here either.”

Once Yang was a student at UW-Eau Claire, Thesing-Ritter again encouraged her to become involved in Blugold Beginnings.

This time, she says, she listened.

“I finally saw how much Blugold Beginnings’ mission aligns with my own personal mission,” Yang says. “Also, once I was here, I realized that getting help from Blugold Beginnings doesn’t make me stupid. I finally understood that as a minority, I don’t get the same opportunities as Caucasian people, so Blugold Beginnings is very valuable.”

In other words, she says, she now understands that she could have tapped into all that Blugold Beginnings offers, while also being in other programs for high-achieving youth.

Yang says being part of the program also has helped her learn to better appreciate her Hmong heritage, something she struggled with growing up.

“Hmong was something that I didn’t want to be growing up,” Yang says. “But now the idea of being Hmong is so important to me.”

As she looks to her future, Yang hopes to attend graduate school and eventually work as a chemical engineer.

If she follows that path, she will be the first in her family to earn a graduate degree.

“I know I can do it because Blugold Beginnings and Jodi are here to help and support me,” Yang says. “That makes all the difference. With their support, I know that if I try hard and work hard, I can do anything.”

Hopefully, Yang says, the eighth graders she’s bringing to campus this spring for the Eighth Grade Tour Day also will be inspired to think big when considering their own futures.

“I love learning, and that’s what this is really about,” Yang says of Blugold Beginnings. “I hope that the students who come here for tour day learn that it’s okay to love learning.”

Photo caption: As an intern, Mai Yer Yang is helping Blugold Beginnings plan the Eighth Grade Tour Day in April, an event meant to inspire area youth to consider college.