School: Brown University
To say Dee Xiong is far from home is quite the understatement. The college sophomore from Minneapolis, Minn. is currently studying at Brown University in Providence, R.I. That ‘commute’ is quite the trip, but then there’s her native country to consider in the equation. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand 21 years ago. Then her family moved to Minnesota when she was two.
“My mom didn’t speak English for a long time, and even now, speaks very limited English, so being able to interpret for her was very important since I was the first English-speaker in the home.”
Threatened by a life of poverty, abuse and limited education—Dee dropped out of high school her junior year—she’s worked her way toward a more stable life. That life now includes a full college scholarship to Brown University.
“I ran around the Covenant dorms yelling like a crazy person when I read that I had been accepted. When I read that all four years of college would be paid for, I stopped and cried. I never imagined such a thing could even happen.”
The road to that emotional celebration was anything but smooth. Abuse at a young age, coupled with the natural language barriers and monetary problems many immigrants experience, made her early years very difficult.
In stepped Anita Martin, who took then 13-year-old Dee under her wing through the Big Brother Big Sister Program and has been supporting Dee for the past eight years—emotionally, and many times, physically and financially, welcoming Dee into her home.
“The relationship became much more than the required twice a month meetings,” Martin says. “We really became a family. We’ve done just about everything you can imagine available in Minneapolis.”
Martin became very involved with Dee’s siblings (she’s the oldest of four) as well, taking them to Hmong scout meetings, doctor and dentist appointments, therapists, shopping trips, plus leisure activities like theater outings and camping trips.
Dee Xiong and Anita Martin
“She exposed me to a part of American culture that I didn’t know about, or didn’t have access to because of my poor immigrant status,” Dee said. “I’ve worked hard to be where I am now, but without Anita, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
Their combined dedication transformed Dee from truant Patrick Henry H.S. dropout to successful student at Bethlehem Academy, a private Catholic school.
Martin attributes Covenant Academy – a Catholic Charities boarding school where Dee lived while completing her junior and senior years at Bethlehem – as Dee’s true turning point. The stability, structure and ever-present house parent all worked toward Dee’s advantage.
“She’s gained a lot of confidence. She’s just really blossomed,” Martin says. “But it took awhile. When I met Dee she was very shy and withdrawn and wasn’t in school.”
Now Dee’s life is almost the exact opposite of her tumultuous start. She’s a sophomore English student at Brown, enjoys the Anime club (Japanese animation), among other activities, and social situations are something to anticipate.
“When I was still looking for colleges, I read in a review that Brown students ‘work hard, play hard.’ It’s very much true. So while I often feel like I have my nose stuck in my books, I also have time to unwind and relax with friends. It’s a great atmosphere.”
When Dee returns from college on visits she shares her time between her mother’s home and Anita’s. She also fits in time for Minnesota’s great outdoors, an appreciation Martin instilled in her during early outings as a Little Sister.
Currently in her sophomore year, her intended graduation is May of 2009. She’s in her final year of learning Japanese at Brown and hopes to move on to Chinese next. Her past isn’t forgotten, but Dee’s certainly found a way to move forward.
“I’m afraid my Hmong is getting rusty though.”