Nhia KhangNhia Khang, left, speaking with Sacramento State senior writer Cynthia Hubert in May, became an example of success and inspiration for the Hmong community. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Nhia Khang was 13 years old when he arrived in America from a refugee camp in Thailand in 1976. He had little formal schooling, spoke no English and knew nothing about his new city, Sacramento. His family was poor, hungry and without reliable transportation.

But Khang was as determined as he was disadvantaged.

“I knew that without an education, there was no way out,” he said.

That education began with dictionaries he carried with him everywhere to help translate his native Hmong to English. The books, along with long bus trips through an unfamiliar city to attend classes and studies that extended from early morning to late night, helped him get through school and community college.

“It was tough, very tough, I have to say,” he recalled.

Still, Khang thirsted for more knowledge.

In 1982, he arrived at Sacramento State, becoming one of the University's first Hmong students. Three years later, he was the first Hmong graduate.

Khang subsequently earned a master’s degree from Sac State and forged a career as a social worker. Three of his children are Sac State alums, and one is a current student.

Khang will be honored on Friday, June 7 at a black-tie gala at the Sacramento State Alumni Center. The event is sponsored by Project HMONG, a new Sac State program that supports Hmong students.

“It’s inspirational to see someone who was the first to break the barriers, to pave the way and allow Sac State to be a destination campus for Hmong students,” said Chao Vang of the University’s Student Academic Success and Educational Equity Programs.

Vang, who founded Project HMONG in collaboration with community members, said Sac State’s Hmong student population of more than 1,100 has grown steadily and is among the largest in the nation. Several Hmong students will receive scholarships at the gala.

Khang, who retired in 2017 as a supervisor in San Joaquin County’s Children’s Services division, said he was unaware that he was a Sac State pioneer until recently. Vang informed him in April that he was the University’s first Hmong graduate after researching stories of Hmong families who settled in Sacramento after the Vietnam War.

“I feel very proud of myself, to be the first, and to have come here with no English and obtained three college degrees,” Khang said recently during his first visit to campus since 1989.

“Lots of changes,” he said of the campus, as he admired the towering trees, new and refurbished buildings and murals decorating Lassen Hall.

Khang and his relatives are believed to be the first Hmong family to have settled in Sacramento. Nhia Khang arrived in the capital in 1976 with his older brother, By Khang, Khang’s wife and their baby son, according to published reports.

By Khang was among about 30,000 Hmong recruited by the United States to fight North Vietnamese soldiers during the war. When the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, By Khang joined an exodus of Hmong forced out of Laos by communist soldiers seeking revenge. Following a year in a Thai refugee camp, his family traveled to Sacramento, where they had a sponsor.

The family’s first home in America was a shabby hotel room near UC Davis Medical Center, Nhia Kang said. Later they settled in south Sacramento. They struggled for a while, and depended on welfare payments.

“The United States was an unknown,” Khang said. “Everything was new. You had to start learning, just like you were a baby.”

Khang said he went straight from middle school, where he learned English, to American River College. “I took the first bus in the morning, and the last bus at night to come home,” he said. “Sometimes I had no lunch. It was very hard.”

But he finished at ARC, earning an associate’s degree. Then he enrolled at Sac State, which at the time seemed “small and very friendly,” he said.

Khang had decided to become a social worker, taking inspiration from his late mother who was a shaman in Laos.

“She helped people, and I wanted to do the same,” he said. He earned his bachelor’s degree in social welfare in 1985, and his master of social work in child and family services four years later.

“I don’t know how I did it,” he said. “It was a combination of wanting to get my education, and persistence and determination to graduate and become somebody important in the community.”

After obtaining his master’s degree, Khang took a job with San Joaquin County as a social worker, commuting between Sacramento and Stockton each day. He helped troubled families with rehabilitation and reunification with their children, and worked on adoptions. He retired as a supervisor after 23 years with the county.

Vang hopes stories such as Khang’s will uplift young Hmong people. Despite the growth in enrollment, only about 2 percent of Hmong students at Sac State graduate in four years. Many feel depressed, isolated and overwhelmed on campus, studies have shown.

Vang wants to “help galvanize the Hmong community to help them succeed,” he said, adding that Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen and his administration actively support such efforts.

“It’s part of being an anchor institution, allowing people to get an education, stay in the area and contribute, like Nhia Khang did,” Vang said. “These success stories make it easier for Hmong to take a different path.”

Sacramento has the third-largest Hmong population in the country, with more than 31,000 people, Pew Research Center statistics show. About 14 percent of Hmong people living in the United States earned a bachelor’s degree in 2015; 4 percent earned a postgraduate degree. More than 28 percent lived in poverty.

Khang attributed his accomplishments to an inner drive to improve his life, and to give back to the country that gave him a chance to do so.

“Know what you want in life, and work as hard as you can for it,” he said. “Anyone can do it, but you have to put your heart into it.” – Cynthia Hubert