Khu Say was just an infant when he, his parents, and older brother were forced from their home in Burma — now known as Myanmar — and into the jungle to flee the civil war between the Burmese and Karen people.
They lived in that jungle for six months.
Fleeing armed conflicts, horrendous human rights abuse and persecution by the Burmese military, Khu Say’s family eventually crossed the border to Thailand where they spent 11 years in a refugee camp.
A resettlement program eventually helped his family establish roots in Lincoln, Neb.
“Over there we didn’t have much as refugees,” said Khu Say. “Coming to the U.S. was a life-changing experience.”
A safe, new home didn’t come without challenges. His family didn’t speak English. They weren’t familiar with American culture. They spent their first months confined inside their small apartment. They heard stories of other refugees being threatened and assaulted.
Lincoln, Neb., however, was very accepting.
“The hardest thing was the language barrier,” he said. “It gave us a lot of limitations.”
The family spoke with their case worker using non-verbal cues. Members of First Baptist Church began to reach out and help the family adjust. They helped with learning English, transportation, food and other errands.
They also learned they weren’t alone. They met other resettlement families who adjusted with them.
“Without their help, we wouldn’t have been able to do it on our own,” said Khu Say.
Khu Say credits his ESL teacher for helping him with his English. And he credits Upward Bound, a program that serves students from low-income families in providing support in preparing for college. Through Upward Bound, Khu Say took advantage of tutoring, counseling, mentoring, and academic instruction.
Upward Bound’s preparedness led him to a college tour of Nebraska Wesleyan, the place he would eventually call home for four years.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to attend a private university, but after seeing the advantages that Nebraska Wesleyan had to offer, it became my choice,” he said.
Now Khu Say’s experience is coming full circle.
During his “Education in a Pluralistic Society” course, professor Randy Ernst asked his students to create a project that would be culturally proficient and helpful to others.
Through his experience with Upward Bound, Khu Say knew there were many other refugee high school students like him who struggle with a new language and likely need help preparing for their future.
“Looking back into my experience, I didn’t know how to prepare for college or what support systems were out there,” he recalled. “I saw the need that a lot of these newcomers don’t know the support systems they have available to them. I want them to know that if they want to go to college, there are scholarships and options,” he said.
Through his class project, Khu Say developed a Saturday mentoring program where he meets with approximately 20 high school students at the Karen Society of Nebraska. Each week they focus on a new goal: leadership, career exploration, college prep, scholarships, volunteering, and homework.
“He saw a need and took action,” said Randy Ernst, assistant professor of education. “I think his representation of the Prairie Wolf spirit is pretty clear: give more than you take and leverage the advantages you have been blessed with so that others may also benefit from your talents.”
Ernst said students were expected to develop and implement their project during the fall semester. Khu Say continues to meet with high school students every week.
“Khu Say will never really know where his influence will end, given that he is working to help immigrants and help them learn how to maximize educational opportunities in this country,” Ernst says. “He’s become a support person that students can rely on.”
Khu Say said he enjoys encouraging and connecting with his students. He has a passion for working with younger kids and wants to make a difference in their lives. He plans to student teach and then pursue a career as a biology teacher and eventually earn a Ph.D to become a college professor or administrator.
“I’m going to continue this program as long as people show up. My goal is to encourage them, to motivate them, to let them know that even if they came here late, and even if they have a problem with a language barrier, that college is an option and there are opportunities out there,” said Khu Say.
Story by Kelsea Porter, public relations intern.