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Feature

Sythong Somsawat speaks with a high school student.

Sythong Somsawat, right, speaks with a high school student during Student Parent Day at the U.

The voice of experience

Reaching out to student-parents

By Bob San

January 27, 2006

Sythong Somsawat was an honors high school student and the pride of her parents and family. Then she got pregnant after she graduated from high school, and her whole world changed. "I was scared to death. I remember my aunt and uncle said, 'Oh, it's the end of your life,'" says Somsawat, daughter of immigrant parents from Laos. "My family was poor and my parents had very high hopes for me. When I got pregnant they were very disappointed. They thought I wasn't going to do anything with my future." It was a traumatic experience, but it wasn't the end of Somsawat's future. She was determined to overcome the challenge and fulfill her dreams. "I am the oldest child, so I wanted to set a good example for my younger brothers and sisters," Somsawat says. "College was something I had always dreamt of. There was never a question whether I would go. It's just a matter of when." Because of financial needs, Somsawat was planning to take a year off between high school and college to save money. But when she found out she was pregnant, Somsawat decided to postpone college for another year. After the birth of her daughter and two years off, Somsawat is now a junior majoring in economics at the University of Minnesota. She plans to either work as a financial planner or pursue a master's degree in public health administration.

"I was scared to death. I remember my aunt and uncle said, 'Oh, it's the end of your life,'" says Somsawat, daughter of immigrant parents from Laos. "My family was poor and my parents had very high hopes for me ..."

Somsawat not only overcame the difficulty of a teen pregnancy, she is using her experience to try to make a difference for other young students with children. As a freshman, she had enrolled in General College, where she found support from the Student Parent HELP Center, an office that provides services for University students with children. Under the guidance of center director Susan Warfield, Somsawat and other student-parents co-founded the University of Minnesota Student Parent Association (SPA) two years ago to serve as a support and advocacy group for other young people like them. This past fall, Somsawat and members of the SPA launched their first major initiative when they hosted about 40 student-parents from AGAPE (Adolescent Girls And Parenting Education) Alternative High School in St. Paul at a pizza lunch at the U. The purpose of the event was to increase the visibility of the successful men and women with children who are currently students at the University or alumni who were student-parents. The teen parents were matched with University of Minnesota student-parents to discuss college majors and career selection. "It took a lot of time to organize, but it was very rewarding," Somsawat says of the day. "We got to connect with the students. Talking to the high school students, I could see myself. I was one of them when I was young." Somsawat says the key message of the day to the high school students was that having children is not the end of the world, that they can have a future, and that there are people who have gone through what they are going through who will offer support and help. "We want to tell these students that we understand their needs and we want to recognize their effort," Somsawat says. "We want to encourage them to continue on with their education and possibly go on to college." Somsawat is planning to follow up with a mentoring program for the high school students in the spring. "Sythong is just an amazing young woman," says Warfield. "I've seen her mentor younger parents, take them under her wing to make sure they establish themselves here ... She is a kind and gentle soul and just always goes above and beyond her duties while doing a wonderful job of parenting and being an excellent student."