Dr. Ketmani Kouanchao celebrates her birthday on October 5th this week. A Lao American community builder, educator and contributor to Little Laos on the Prairie, she recently celebrated her one-year anniversary as Dean of Student Services at Mendocino College in Ukiah, California.
Dean Kouanchao is one of the few Lao Americans in the country to successfully pursue higher education, and she’s used her knowledge to encourage others to pursue education as a fundamental part of their lifelong success.
She received her doctorate from California State University-Fullerton in Community College Leadership. Prior to that, she’d received her Master’s in Family Education from the University of Minnesota, where she’d also received her bachelor’s in Sociology, Public Health, and East Asian Studies. She often credits her success to the lessons she learned with her family as refugees from Laos as they began their lives again in North Minneapolis.
“My mother and father always stressed the importance of education in our lives and taught us to give back to the community. We had a lot of options, but my parents chose to move the family close to the University of Minnesota so we’d always see it as something in reach,” Kouanchao said.
Kouanchao’s unique experiences and skills have been in high demand, taking her from Minnesota to Milwaukee, Southern California, and now Mendocino College. Often her jobs have required her to work with students who are the first in their families to attend college.
She’s built strong relationships with her students and families because she can relate to their struggles, and how much it would mean for them to succeed. “When I talk to many of my students, they hadn’t even considered all of the possibilities of who they could become. It seemed impossibly out of reach, like the top of a mountain far on the horizon. I do my best to encourage them and to show them there are many possibilities, and many services in place to support them on their journey.”
Her own journey began in Savannakhet, Laos, a few years before the end of the war in 1975 that displaced over 700,000 Lao around the world. She’s been reflecting on that journey often as many cities recognize the 40th anniversary of the Lao Diaspora this year. She was last back home in Minneapolis in April as part of the National Lao American Symposium and Writers Summit. “I was proud to see the Lao Students Association there collecting stories for us to share with the next generation,” she said. “I’m glad they’re taking an interest, and valuing our culture, our legacy.”
Kouanchao’s dissertation was focused on success strategies for communities and families with Lao students. “My findings stressed the importance of doing more to ensure our students have ways to connect with peers and mentors who understand their culture and their social goals. Connect our youth to culturally appropriate support such as the wat Lao, community centers, and other positive youth groups is important for the success of many of our students. It’s not a guarantee, but it improves the odds.”
Commuity statistics suggest that almost 90% of the Lao community over 25 do not successfully attain a bachelor’s degreee. Dr. Kouanchao hopes to encourage the community to do more to turn those statistics around. She recently shared a number of scholarship opportunities available for Lao American students, but their success will depend on much more than that. “Families and community need to value and support education meaningfully. It can feel like a big sacrifice but over a student’s lifetime it more than pays itself back professionally for them and their loved ones.”
For her efforts, Dr. Kouanchao has received many distinctions and commendations. She was the recipient of the 2012 Honor An Educator Scholarship from the CSU Fullerton School of Education. Mt. San Jacinto College recognized her as Administrator of the Year in 2014, and that same year, the 3rd Ward of Minneapolis declared October 5th Ketmani Kouanchao Day.
When asked about her favorite books, she admired the Harry Potter series, especially the teachers who stood by their students at Hogwarts. She also loved Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” which opened her eyes to searching for truth and wisdom in the world. In college, the work of Vincent Tinto, especially his book Supplemental Instruction and Learning Community helped her identify and strategize her approach to overcoming barriers in her life. The work of Paolo Freire gave her many insights to addresssing the education challenges in the Lao community. She’s also been inspired by thinkers like Aung Suu Kyi and Thich Nhat Hanh. “I’m drawn to people who are optimistic, with positive visions and understand of how much we can do when we work together.”
Kouanchao learned the importance of getting involved early in life, and has been a supporter of many community building efforts over the years, including the SatJaDham Lao Literary project, the Soroptimist club, and currently is actively engaged with her local Rotary club and Wat Lao Saysettha in Santa Rosa. “When we give back, we grow,” she said.
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