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Dedicating a degree

Posted 8:33 a.m. Monday, Dec. 11, 2023

Ka Zang Lee with her mother, Susan Xiong.

Mother conquers college doubts, pandemic parenting to graduate in December 

Ka Zang Lee's walk across the commencement stage this December is more than a personal triumph; it's a profound dedication to her mother. 

“I want to show her that it doesn’t matter how old you are or where you are in life, you can do it,” says Lee.  

Her mother, Susan Xiong, was a constant presence in the back of her mind during her four years on campus. Xiong came to the U.S. as a Hmong refugee from Thailand in the early 1980s. Despite Xiong's fervent desire for education and English proficiency, the demands of raising children prevented her from realizing her dream. Lee and Xiong’s other children became her interpreters, bridging the language gap, but her mother's educational aspirations remained unfulfilled. 

"On the days when I really wanted to quit, I’d think about her story, her struggle,” says Lee. “Sometimes I think I take my English language for granted … It hits me hard.” 

Lee, a mother herself, understands the challenge of pursuing educational goals while raising children. She was married during her junior year of high school, and moved to La Crosse with her husband her senior year.  

She found odd jobs in La Crosse after high school working at nursing homes, retail stores and factories. It wasn’t what she wanted to do, but it met the expectations for herself she'd heard growing up, particularly from a high school guidance counselor who said she didn’t stand a chance at earning a four-year degree. 

It was a pivotal moment in a factory job with its physical strain, repetitive tasks, and low pay that prompted Lee to shift her trajectory towards higher education despite the naysayers. 

Going back to school 

Her first year back at school at Western Technical College was difficult. After enrolling, she learned she was pregnant with her first child, and she felt a rollercoaster of emotions as her pregnancy progressed during her first semester. On top of that, new classes in medical terminology and other topics proved complex and she didn’t know where to turn for help. Despite the challenges, she earned a medical assistant degree four years later in 2008 and went on to work as a medical assistant at Gundersen Health System. 

Fast forward twelve years and Lee had two more kids and a desire to continue her education at UW-La Crosse. But, as she started classes, her husband was deployed to Ukraine, and she found herself simultaneously managing classes and caring for three children at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zoom classes became a family affair, with Lee and her six-year-old daughter sharing a workspace while her boys tackled school upstairs. Even as the pandemic's grip lessened, new challenges emerged.  

When she sought clarification on course material for one class, someone insensitively attributed her struggles to English being her second language, triggering anxiety about her identity. 

“It affected me so much that I thought I had a learning disability.  I googled all the symptoms, asked friends and professors —They all assured me that I didn’t,” she recalls.  

Reclaiming identity 

Ka Zang Lee graduated in December with a degree in sociology.

Throughout these trials, Lee was guided by the thought of her mother and the support of several UWL mentors who helped her reshape her narrative. 

Lee credits former UWL Advisor Tammy Reed, of Student Support Services, with helping her transform her challenges with education into sources of strength.  She discovered that her struggles allowed her to empathize with others facing similar obstacles and that understanding would pay dividends in her future work.  

“She put positivity in my mind and goals, and motivated me to continue my education” says Lee. “She understood. She had been a non-traditional student herself.” 

Lee's dedication to inspiring others through sharing her own struggle was apparent during her second semester on campus when she wrote an essay in a first-year English class that was recognized as one of the best and selected for republication in the local paper. Olivia Stoltman, assistant teaching professor of English, describes Lee's narrative as an exemplary piece discussed in many College Writing courses, noting that her story continues to inspire students years later. 

Stoltman and Sara Heaser, also in English, helped Lee begin to see her strong ability to write compelling stories and connect concepts from class to her own identity and aspirations. 

“She was incredibly adept at focusing on why we were discussing the concepts we were, and how they mattered in her own life,” says Heaser. “She's incredibly studious, dedicated to a life of learning and curiosity.”

In later years at UWL, Lee became a standout sociology student as well. Sociology faculty describe her as “outstanding" and one who has done a great deal to excel, despite balancing school, work and family obligations. 

Lee credits Sociology Professor Dawn Norris with helping  her understand her identity as a non-traditional student, which led to her pursuit of undergraduate research interviewing numerous non-traditional students about their experience in higher education. 

“As a nontraditional-age student, she brought a unique perspective to class discussions and asked questions that made us all think,” says Norris. 

To have professors recognize her intelligence was powerful, says Lee, as it contradicted earlier ideas she believed about herself. 

"It was amazing to learn that there are people out there who do believe in me besides myself and my little family,” she says.  

Last December, Lee graduted from UWL with a degree in sociology with plans to pursue a non-profit career helping youth pursue their future dreams. 

“I want to guide youth to what they want to achieve in life. I think it makes a big impact when you start at a young age,” she says. “I want to give them something positive to focus on. In my own experience, I didn’t have that kind of guidance.” 

Lee hopes her graduation day sends a message not only to her mother, but to future generations. 

“I imagine her children and her family watching her walk across that stage, and I imagine what a powerful memory it will be for her kids,” says Heaser. “Yes, she's a full-time student, but she's also a fantastic, full-time parent, and she is acutely aware of the generational impact her education has on the people she loves most." 


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