The sixth of 12 children of Hmong immigrants, Lily Moua faced the challenge of becoming a member of American society while respecting the wishes and culture of her parents.

When Lily was 13, her family moved from the Central Valley of California to St. Paul, Minnesota. Her father got a job in a factory; her mother in a bakery. She attended one of St. Paul’s better middle schools and then one of its worst high schools. “It was sort of a dumping ground for the most difficult students but it was in my neighborhood and I could get involved in activities after school.”

“In my culture, a woman is not supposed to do that.” Lily’s parents do not speak English, which made it harder for them to understand American culture. Like many Hmong parents, they realized the importance of education, yet they expected Lily to come home after school to learn the traditional Hmong girl’s role of helping around the house and preparing to marry and raise a family. At the school, Lily saw things that should change and stepped into the role of a leader. Her parents were angry and confused that she wanted to participate in after school activities that she thought could help her get into college.

Lily realized she and her family were not the only ones facing this conflict. In her junior year, she worked with a community advisor and organized meetings with the Hmong parents and students. The students explained why their activities were important to them and their futures. The parents expressed their fears that their children would abandon their culture and traditions.

“In the Hmong community, parents didn’t get involved in school. They didn’t know how, and they had a lot of kids so it was hard to make the time.” Through the meetings, parents began to realize they could get involved, voice their opinions about the school and the resources it needed. “It was impactful,” Lily said—so much so that her father now volunteers in political campaigns.

When Lily won the Beat the Odds award, her parents began to accept her as a leader. “It opened their eyes to, ‘Oh, the community does award people who do good things. It’s worth fighting for your rights and volunteering and doing good deeds.’”

She graduated second in her high school class and cum laude from St. Olaf College. She completed her master’s degree in public policy at the University of Minnesota. She now works as a human resources specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services in Minnesota. She also co-teaches for the Hmong Women’s Leadership Institute and mentors Hmong women and girls.