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Chue Vue brings a fresh look to St. Paul School Board
Hmong-American immigrant has an eye on education and a solid background
East Sider Chue Vue is a busy guy, and with his new role as a member of the St. Paul School Board, it’s not letting up anytime soon.
But he’s not put off in the least by what’s ahead; rather, he’s determined to get his feet wet.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” he said, “I’m still making my rounds.”
He’s working full time as a lawyer at his own firm on University Avenue, attending meetings and getting to know key St. Paul Public Schools players, including other board members. Often, he won’t get home to his wife and children until 10 p.m.
“It’s going to be more busy now, but things will calm down,” he said hopefully.
He’s eager to bring his unique experiences to the St. Paul School Board. With an immigrant’s perspective, and young kids in special education programs and a daughter at Harding High School, he’s got a grasp of many parts of the St. Paul public school system.
And as a Hmong immigrant who was plugged into the education system a little late in life, at the age of 10, he’s come a long way to bring that perspective.
Much of his young life was spent in Laos and in turmoil -- his father was a radio operator for the Laoatian secret army and after the U.S. pulled out of Laos in 1973, his father was forced to flee the country, fearing for his life. His wife and four kids, including Chue Vue, were left to live with relatives, waiting for a chance to leave the country as well. Food was quite scarce as they waited to leave.
It took them over three years and three attempts to get escape war-torn Laos by secretly crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. The first two attempts were thwarted and the family even spent some time in jail.
But the third attempt proved successful, and at the age of 10, Vue and his family landed in the U.S., in a low-income, almost entirely African-American community in Dallas, Texas. Vue didn’t speak a word of English.
“It was rough down there,” Vue recalled. At the school he attended, the teachers needed 10 minutes at the start of each period just to establish order, and there was little room for him to receive any kind of one-on-one attention.
And the neighborhood wasn’t the greatest -- he recalled that one night, the furniture and TV a church had brought them was stolen from their second-story apartment. The family decided to relocate, in hopes of finding some peace and better education for their kids.
It was in the quiet town of Lawton, Okla., where Vue said he got his first taste of true education.
Vue’s family and several other Hmong families moved there, and the education system greeted them with open arms.
“They weren’t prepared for a bunch of immigrants moving in,” he recalled, but they went out of their way to accommodate them.
“They really tried to help us, and that’s when we really grew and flourished.”
At the age of 12, Vue was finally starting to gain more English and improve his grades. From there, it was smoother sailing.
His family moved to Tulsa, Okla., and then on to La Crosse, Wis., where he completed high school and moved on St. Olaf College in Northfield.
As an undergraduate, with only eight years of formal education behind him, he studied chemistry and philosophy, graduated and moved back to La Crosse.
There, his civic engagement began -- he worked as a teaching assistant in the Lacrosse public school system, and began doing community volunteering through La Crosse Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, where his uncle worked.
“I decided to stay rooted in the community to start volunteering,” he said. He eventually gained work at a fish lab at Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, and continued to volunteer, while also marrying and starting a small family.
But he wanted to do more -- “I wanted to do be able to position myself to be able to do more for the community,” he said. “I felt that I wasn’t able to do that” with current skills.
So, in 2003, he decided to go to law school at William Mitchell College of Law.
No stranger to hard work, Vue held a full-time job to support his family, which stayed back in La Crosse, while also going to law school full time. He took on massive student loans, and “worked and worked and worked,” finally bringing his family to St. Paul’s East Side to live together in his final year at William Mitchell.
Things didn’t let up in the least once Vue passed the bar exam -- he started a firm with a cousin, specializing in bankruptcy law in 2006, right around the time when the economic recession was hitting. Vue simultaneously dove back into public service, volunteering a number of groups including the Hmong American Bar Association, the Laos Veterans Organization, the Hmong American Partnership, and more.
With all of that community engagement experience and a law degree behind him, he figures he’s poised to be a good fit for the school board.
Others weigh in
Al Oertwig, long-time former school board member and current president of the Payne Phalen Community Council, said he sees Vue as a perfect fit for the school board.
He said it seems obvious to have a Hmong school board member, as it is a way to represent a significant population of St. Paul students.
And, Oertwig said, Vue’s life story -- one of education prevailing to turn a 10-year-old boy with no education into a success -- is the kind that’s needed on the school board.
“We have more Hmong students than we have Anglo students; we have more African American students than we have Anglo students; and yet, most of our board is Anglo,” he said. “If we’re trying to deal with the achievement gap, we at least need to have some people in the community who ... at least understand what (those immigrant) experiences are.”
Oertwig noted that past Hmong board members have been good resources for the schools to connect with the Hmong community.
Oertwig described Vue as “a careful, thoughtful decision-maker,” and not someone who will be quick to jump to a conclusion.
Minnesota state Sen. Fong Hawj, who represents the East Side, has known Vue for over seven years. He said he encouraged Vue to run because of his personal background and academic achievements. And with a teenager at Harding High School, and two younger kids in special education programs, Vue has a firm grasp on what St. Paul Public Schools look like from a parent’s perspective, Hawj said.
“Having someone on the school board that’s bilingual and understands the (Hmong) culture will be a lot of help,” he added.
Busy times ahead
Andre Ghaureswistch, Vue’s campaign advisor, noted that most of the school board is made up of education professionals -- he sees Vue as a bridge between families and schools.
Ghaureswistch said he’d warned Vue that being on the school board would be no picnic -- he’d be putting in a lot of time, and having very little free time. “Even after I gave him the most bleak outlook, he said, ‘No, I want to do this,’” Ghaureswistch said. And that’s how he knew it was a good idea for Vue to give it a go.
May Tong Yang, Vue’s wife, said she’s amazed by her husband’s constant activity.
“I can’t keep up like him,” she said. And while she would like to have him around a little more, she said, “he’s trying to do the best he can to help these kids,” so she supports his many civic activities.
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.