Hamline News

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Hamline firsts, part 1: First moves

These alumni and students, the first in their families to attend college, are creating success on their own terms. 

By Erin Peterson 


Daring to succeed

It was nearly midnight in Burundi, a tiny, landlocked country in east Africa, but Yassin Omar ’13 was filled with a nearly irrepressible energy.

It’s a good thing too: Omar is eight months into his tenure with the U.S. Foreign Service. He assists the head of security operations in Burundi, a job that keeps him busy enough for two. “I help with security issues,” he said, ticking off some of the items on his to-do list: emergency action planning, briefings, cables, diplomatic notes, helping U.S. personnel come to the country.

He’s just a few years out from graduation, but already, his résumé is packed with highlights. He’s served in Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration as an executive assistant for Kimberly Holmes, general counsel to Dayton; and for now-Senator Tina Smith. Among his duties were developing briefing memos for the Minnesota Board of Pardons and supporting other work related to criminal justice. His responsibilities frequently led him to be in the same room with some of the state’s most important legal minds.

Omar said that Hamline didn’t just help him hone the intellectual chops he needed to excel in such positions—it also helped him develop the self-assurance he needed to attain them in the first place. “For first-generation college students, sometimes the confidence is not there,” he said. “You don’t want to take risks.”

Hamline made him feel that his contributions were essential. He participated in the Model United Nations, graduated with a degree in finance, and loved that his professors brought diverse perspectives to every class session.

Omar may not know what’s next quite yet—he still has plenty of time left on his two-year term—but there’s no question he’s got a mindset that will help take him wherever his ambition leads.

FORMER MCVAY STUDENTS PAY IT FORWARD

In 2003, sisters Dayliar Htoo ’14 and Zin Zin Htoo ’14 arrived in Saint Paul as Karen community refugees from war-torn Burma. At the time, they weren’t thinking about how they would thrive in the United States. They were just trying to figure out how to make it through the day. They had to learn a new culture, improve their English, and pass their classes. “I didn’t think I would even graduate from high school,” Zin Zin admitted.

But when the sisters’ mom enrolled them in the McVay Youth Partnership at Hamline as high school students, they were able to raise their sights. It wasn’t just the homework help and other activities they enjoyed on weekday afternoons after school—it was also the champion they got in McVay director Jane Krentz ’74. She urged them to apply to Hamline, though neither of the sisters felt certain they’d be able to get in or afford tuition.

They did, and scholarships and grants helped make costs affordable. Dayliar noted that an early orientation for first-year students helped them feel comfortable in their new environment, and they went on to focus on their studies. Zin Zin got a degree in criminal justice, and Dayliar got a degree in business management.

Today, Dayliar works as a Karen medical interpreter for Intelligere, where she interprets for patients who have language barriers during their medical appointments. “It’s everything from OB-GYN to mental health to surgery,” she explained. “It’s really rewarding to help my Karen people understand things that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to understand.”

Zin Zin, who works as a Karen cultural liaison for more than 100 students at the Roseville School District, said she loves helping kids—who often remind her of her younger self—succeed. With two young daughters now, she said she sees a bright future for them. While she plans to help them stay connected to their Karen roots, she wants them to excel in the Western culture they will call home. “I want to make sure they have the best life,” she said. “Even better than mine.”

OPENING DOORS, EXPANDING MINDS 

An election for a seat on a city council doesn’t usually gin up much interest from the media, but when Andrea Jenkins MFA ’10 was elected to the Minneapolis City Council, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today all took note. It was for good reason: Jenkins’ success made her the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the United States.

For Jenkins, the moment in the spotlight was exciting—if somewhat perplexing. “When I ran for office, I didn’t think of myself as [potentially becoming] the first African American transgender person to be elected. I just thought of myself as the best person for the job,” she said.

She came to the job with more than a quarter century of public service experience, working as a Minneapolis City Council policy aide, nonprofit executive director, and Hennepin County employment specialist.

Her groundbreaking election wasn’t the only time she’d been a first at something. She’s also a first-generation college graduate, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Hamline. She’s published several books, including a book of poetry, The T is Not Silent.

So perhaps it’s not a surprise that one of her agenda items is giving a boost to the city’s vibrant arts scene. “The city can do so much more to invest in artists of color and lift up the arts as a calling card for our city,” she said, noting the significant potential economic impact of such work. She’s also committed to issues such as the $15/hour minimum wage, affordable housing, and improving the relationship between the police and the community.

Jenkins knows she’s taking on an ambitious agenda—and she also knows that the world is watching. “My most important goal is to be the best city council member that I can be,” she said. “If I do that, that helps the broader idea around transgender people contributing to life and society. That benefits everybody.” 

A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES

Josh Kiyee’s ’18 parents aren’t college graduates, but they made it crystal clear that they expected their son to be one. “It was mandatory in our house,” he said. “It was the thing you did to progress in life.”

If there was one thing his parents wanted for their son, it was that he move toward ever greater opportunity. It was that idea that had motivated them to move to Saint Paul from Liberia, which had been devastated by civil war, before Kiyee was born.

Kiyee, who learned about Hamline through his experience with the high school mentorship program the McVay Youth Partnership, was initially attracted to Hamline for its strong theater program. He’s performed in multiple productions, including Macbeth, and he co-wrote a play with a friend.

In the classroom, he’s gravitated to courses and opportunities that have looked at big problems and systemic issues. He’ll graduate this spring with majors in public health sciences and global studies, and he recently finished an internship supporting immigration services for the International Institute of Minnesota.

The internship opened his eyes to the enormous challenges immigrants face, including those his parents faced when they arrived in the country. “[At my internship,] I helped people renew their green cards or work permits,” he said. “I also saw that one part of the immigrant experience is not having a lot of money when you come to a new country, so helping people get things like legal or health services is really important.”

After graduation, he plans to teach English in Asia. “I’m interested in continuing to experience different cultures and worldviews,” he said.

LEADING THE WAY

Sara Antony ’19, a first-generation college student from Marshall, recalls her parents telling her and her two brothers: “You have to go to college. It doesn’t matter what you do or how much college, but you need to continue your education in some way.” They wanted their children to have opportunities for a better life.

Antony worked hard in school and started saving money for college at 14. It paid off. She won several academic scholarships to attend Hamline. 

She participated in a leadership development program at Hamline called Pathways in her first year. Then, she became a mentor to other students in the program. “I’ve always kind of taken a leadership role in things that I’ve done, but it’s definitely developed a lot more at Hamline,” she said.

As president of Hamline University Student Congress (HUSC), the junior accounting and economics major oversees an executive board, manages a budget that funds all of the student organizations on campus, and organizes events. She sits on several committees, including the academic and student affairs committee of Hamline’s board of trustees.

As if all that weren’t enough, Antony also tutors economics and works at the School of Business. Summers, she interns at Wells Fargo. Despite all of these demanding jobs, Antony excels in academics, earning honors. 

Antony hopes to pursue a career in portfolio management. “It’s just something I’m really passionate about,” she said, “and I want to figure out a way I can use that to help people and use my knowledge to make improvements to companies.”

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Hamline Firsts

Part 2: History in the making

Part 3: Science innovators