Hamline News

Overcoming the Odds


Northfield native Josh Wood grew up in the shadow of university life. But attending college seemed like a fairytale wish for the son of a teenage mom who struggled to pay bills while working factory jobs. 

Despite all odds, however, Wood dared to imagine a brighter future for himself. At 16, he moved out of his mother’s house, took on three part-time jobs, and enrolled in classes at a community college. Today, Wood is well on his way to achieving his goal of becoming a teacher. 

For the children of many middle- and upper-class families, college is a given, an inevitable rite of passage. For others, like Wood, the path to college is less direct, sometimes complicated by finances, family, and other circumstances. 

On these pages, three Hamline students share inspirational stories of how they overcame obstacles and sometimes long odds in pursuit of their dreams. 

They say small class sizes, professors with real-world experience, and a breadth of course offerings and programs tailored to students who are first-generation, older than average, part-time, or parents make Hamline their ideal choice.

First in his family  

To many, Northfield is an enclave of education and culture in southern Minnesota. “There is so much money and opportunity for some people,” Wood said.

His early years there stood as a stark contrast, however. Wood grew up in the “other half” of Northfield. His mother had her first child at age 14 and had Josh at age 18. She worked in the Malt-O-Meal factory and in another factory that manufactured cellphone components.

Wood remembers his mother picking and choosing which bills to pay each month.

“My mother never had the opportunity to complete a traditional high school track or think about post-secondary options,” he said.

Mother-son chats about college didn’t go deep. “It was a short conversation,” he said. “The idea of taking on thousands of dollars in debt didn’t make a lot of sense.”

In a twist of circumstances, skipping school eventually put Wood on a college track. His truancy officer connected him with his high school’s college preparation program. Wood registered for courses at Riverland Community College and took university tours. He toured Hamline four or five times. 

“College seemed like it was kind of an impossible thing to do, but you learn there are ways to make this happen,” he said.

The summer before his first year at Hamline, Wood attended a bridge program that allowed him to ease into university life and connect with faculty and staff.

“That served as a foundation for me,” he said. “It’s another support system or safety net. I was connected to a lot of helpful people who were invested in me, helping me stay and have a good experience.”

Wood, 21, is now a junior majoring in social justice and education. College is a struggle financially and emotionally at times. He counts every penny. But Wood knows the sacrifices he’s making now will pay off in the future. 

Wood is among the nearly 20 percent of undergraduate students at Hamline who are the first in their families to
attend college. His mother supports his decision to attend college, but, at times, can’t help question the expense and
the time commitment. 

“The family doesn’t understand why I’m investing so much time and money in a college degree,” Wood said. “I could be working. It’s something I think about all the time.” 

But Wood is committed to being the first in his family to graduate and, as a future teacher, to helping children see their potential—just as his teachers did for him.

Blossoming from humble roots

Carrie Briones’s grandfather crossed the U.S.-Mexico border as a child to work the farm fields. Likewise, Briones’s father dropped out of school in eighth grade to work the fields. Her mother dropped out of high school to work and help support her family.

“That’s what you did to feed the family,” Briones said. 

When her parents reminisce about their childhood, it’s a jolting reminder of her humble roots, Briones said. They fondly recall the annual Salvation Army Christmas fruit basket given to poor families.

“It was a big deal to have fresh fruit,” she said.

Still, Briones’s parents achieved a middle-class life for their children, moving from Milwaukee to a small town so their children could receive the best public education available. They pushed their children to take advantage of everything their school had to offer, and they prompted their children to dream big. 

“My parents didn’t want me to have to work in a factory,” Briones said. “They both worked in factories. They didn’t want us to take the same path as them.”

Briones dreamed of being a lawyer as early as age 10. She was a good student. She enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stout after high school in 1991 but dropped out to get married and have a baby. 

Out of school, Briones couldn’t shake her dream. 

“I had a yearning to finish [college],” she said. “I struggled with being a stay-at-home mom. I needed to go back. I felt life was passing me by.” 

She earned her bachelor’s degree from Stout in 1998, then went on to achieve career success as a policy analyst in the State of Minnesota’s child support enforcement division. But the childhood ambition of being a lawyer still burned inside her.

She enrolled in the weekend program at Hamline School of Law, which allows her to juggle a full-time career and her three children. She’s on track to graduate in May at age 40.

“The weekend program was very welcoming,” Briones said. “They presented this as, ‘This will be really, really hard, but you can do it.’ The faculty is very supportive. I have never been afraid to ask a question.” 

Briones eventually found her work-school-family life rhythm. What has surprised her most is her involvement in campus life. As an older student, she assumed clubs and activities were for younger, traditional students, but she found herself drawn in.

“There are all these really fun, interesting things to do,” said Briones, who is active in the Latino Law School Student Association.
She said the camaraderie amongst her classmates in the part-time law program also has surprised her.

“The student body is amazing. They are family to me now,” Briones said. “We have all gone through divorces, marriages, and babies together. I didn’t expect that. I expected to stumble through this alone. Now I rely on these people every day.”

Breaking free from tradition

Fearful for their lives, Katie Bounkeovisane’s parents fled their home country of Laos during the Vietnam War. Before escaping, her mother’s family spent years hiding in the countryside exposed to the elements. Her father’s family arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand, where they lived in limbo for years. 

“The way my parents describe [the war], it was almost blind killing. That’s terrifying,” said the 21-year-old recent Hamline graduate.

Both her parents eventually settled in Minnesota, married, and found work in factories. Growing up the daughter of immigrants in the mostly white suburbs wasn’t easy for Bounkeovisane.

“I was put in ESL in kindergarten,” she said. “I spoke fluent English and fluent Laotian, but no one ever talked to me. They listened to my parents speak broken English and they thought I was like that.” 

Kids teased her, calling her a “louse”—a crude wordplay on her parents’ home country of Laos. During recess, she found refuge in the school library, where a librarian introduced her to books and showed her kindness.

“I am so thankful for her believing in me,” Bounkeovisane said.

At home, Bounkeovisane encountered other obstacles. Traditional values, especially conventional gender roles, persisted in her family. Girls were groomed to be good wives, not necessarily professionals. That was hard for a young, outspoken American girl to digest. She remembers hurtful comments and conversations with her father.

“It was tough,” Bounkeovisane said. “My father believed intelligence could only be fulfilled through a man’s form. That really hurt me. 

“That’s all he knew,” she added. “He just wanted the best for me.”

Her father believed marriage, not education, would provide his daughter the most security and comfort. At one point, Bounkeovisane said, her outspokenness, assertiveness, and enthusiasm for school was dubbed a “disgrace” and a threat to traditional family values. 

Still, Bounkeovisane dreamed about attending college one day. She recalled seeing Hamline University as her parents drove by the campus on the way to Asian markets and thinking it looked like a utopia—lush with flowers, important, and worldly.
She said Hamline’s financial aid and scholarships made it possible for her to enroll, and the support and guidance from advisors and professors helped her thrive.

In December 2013, Bounkeovisane graduated with a bachelor’s in legal studies, her paralegal certificate, and a religion minor. She plans to work as a paralegal for a few years before pursuing a law degree. 

Bounkeovisane said she’ll participate in commencement this spring, and her family will all be there—even her father. He’s still “on the fence” about how outspoken his daughter is, but he’s coming around,” she said. “He’s super proud I went to college.”

-Shannon Prather