Bennies’ Decade Award honoree for 2023 finds her definition for success.
After the war in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon in 1975, many Hmong families fled Laos for Thailand to escape Communist persecution. One of them belonged to Kia Lor ’13, who was born in a refugee camp and came to the U.S. in 1995 when she was four years old – clutching the hand of her mother when they arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“My mom heard there was this place where there’s free education and hope,” Lor said. “That was all she wanted because she had never been educated in southeast Asia. She was always on a farm. She quickly realized we needed boots and coats and gloves. She told us this wasn’t normal because she’d never seen so much snow in the winter.”
In elementary school, Lor learned a new language – English – that was alien to what she spoke at home. A few years later, she had a seminal moment when in third grade she learned how the earth tilted at a 23.5-degree angle and its rotation contributed to seasons like winter, spring, summer and fall.
“I thought my mom had all the answers in the world,” Lor said. “I was like, ‘Mom, how did you not know that? It’s common knowledge.’ I kind of dismissed her, like she wasn’t going to be able to help me navigate the world. But then I realized it was because she’d never had access to education. And that’s why it became so important to me. But in recent years, I’ve begun to realize that my mom was really my first intercultural teacher. She taught me to be bilingual, even though I resented it. It was like, ‘Why can’t you just speak English? Why can’t we be American?’ Only later did I realize she was showing me the world through different views.”
Kia was the first person in her family to go to college and, 10 years out of the College of Saint Benedict, remains the only one with a master’s degree. Hers came in intercultural communication at the University of Pennsylvania, after which she moved on to Wesleyan University to become assistant director of language and intercultural learning at the school’s Center for Global Studies, the umbrella for 14 different language departments. After four years, she returned to Penn to take her current position as associate director of the Greenfield Intercultural Center.
“My scope now isn’t just about language but societal and institutional support for DEI work and intercultural inclusion,” Lor said. “We want to build political understanding and bring history along to appreciate that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Someday, one of those giants might be Lor herself. She is off to a solid career start and, as a result, is the 2023 Saint Ben’s Decade Award winner, representing high achievement 10 years after graduation.
“I feel like 18-year-old Kia in 2009 – an immigrant kid from the inner city – if she looked at me now, she would be so proud,” Lor said. “Back then, I thought success was about money and power. Now it’s about the lives I can impact and the students I can build relationships with. If I can help them on their journeys, and people from different cultures and backgrounds can understand each other, that means the most to me. I don’t know what the future looks like, but I do know for sure that I want to help bridge differences among communities that aren’t otherwise connected.”