Two-time alumnus earns prestigious AmeriCorps award

| Denise Olson

We know that Blugolds leave this place when they graduate — it's the whole point, right? Each unique graduate takes with them a degree and leaves behind a campus that is changed by who they were and what they accomplished here. The whole process is a little bittersweet, and we accept that.

That's a tougher pill to swallow when a graduate is also a valued employee.

When Khong Meng Her, an associate services coordinator for Blugold Beginnings, receives his second Blugold degree May 25 and leaves the area to pursue a doctoral degree, the campus and community he will leave behind will have been indelibly changed — for the better. So changed, in fact, that shortly after graduating, Her will travel to Madison to accept an award from the governor's office that is a testament to his decade of work as a successful advocate and agent of change for Hmong students.

Her, who holds a bachelor's degree and soon a master's degree in history from UW-Eau Claire, has been involved with the university's Blugold Beginnings program and Office of Multicultural Affairs for a decade, first as an undergraduate student in leadership, then as an AmeriCorps intern, and now as a full-time staff member. Although Her's contributions to policy and process, along with tireless advocacy work for students of color are hard to quantify, Jodi Thesing-Ritter, director of Blugold Beginnings, has had a long history with him and is very familiar with the breadth of his impact on campus. 

Thesing-Ritter nominated Her for the annual AmeriCorps service award, and on June 6, Gov. Tony Evers will present him with the AmeriCorps Alumni of the Year Award.

AmeriCorps, a Clinton-era national service commission, provides opportunities for citizens to connect with and serve within their communities, and Her's first position in Blugold Beginnings was an Americorps internship. The Alumni of the Year honor goes to "a former AmeriCorps member who has made significant contributions to the state of Wisconsin in the years following the conclusion of their term of service with AmeriCorps."

"Khong Meng has worked tirelessly to create opportunities for UW-Eau Claire students and Eau Claire community members to connect with Hmong culture and history," Thesing-Ritter says. "His efforts to co-found Hmong Heritage Month, develop a Hmong immersion program, create an international immersion experience to study Hmong culture in China, create mentoring opportunities for our students through Building Bridges and Boy Scouts, and plan the 40th anniversary of Hmong people in Eau Claire are a testament to his deep desire to share the culture and build a strong cultural identity for Hmong students."

The China immersion trip Thesing-Ritter mentions took place in January 2019. Her traveled with seven students (six Blugolds and one UW-Stout student) to China, where they learned about and experienced the rich history and culture of the Hmong people and other minorities living in southwest China. Dr. Joe Orser, a senior lecturer in history, also was part of the immersion.

"Hmong students who grew up as second or third generation probably heard stories like I did growing up,” Her says. “I wanted to create an opportunity for students interested in Hmong studies or who are, like me, searching for their roots, to be able to travel back to what we know as the beginning in our history.

"In terms of becoming heritage seekers, I saw all of the students being able to connect to the community, insert themselves into the history and gain a new understanding of the loss — the devastating loss of rich history that our culture as Hmong Americans has undergone."

One of the students from that immersion, Mai Lee Yang, took many lasting insights and impressions from the experience. The senior psychology major from Wausau describes one memory from the immersion that deeply impacted her. At some point in the travels, the group had the chance to listen to Her sing a song to the group, a tribute to Hmong culture.

"In the song, he expressed his devotion to our culture. Through all the sentiment and emotions he showed, his passion for Hmong cultural identity became so clear. He showed me that  'Hmoob yuav tsum hlub Hmoob,' a Hmong expression saying that we are all family who will be there for each other."

Students, faculty and staff who have seen and felt the benefits to campus that Her's work has brought will miss his guidance when he leaves for further studies.

The good news for UW-Eau Claire, however, is that Her hopes to return with his Ph.D. to teach international history and continue to foster his passion for helping others become the heritage seeker he has become, while also promoting Hmong culture and history on campus and in the community.

Photo caption: Khong Meng Her will earn his second Blugold degree May 25 — a master's degree in history. He then will receive the AmeriCorps Alumni of the Year Award from Gov. Tony Evers June 6 for his work at UW-Eau Claire with the Blugold Beginnings program and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.