I am not among the wealthiest people that I know but if I compare myself to the entire population of the world I am indeed rich. I never achieved fame for the work that I did and none of my blogs have gone viral. Mine has been a rather quiet life, mostly routine and average. On the other hand if I were to consider the quality of the friends whose company I have enjoyed I would have to admit to being blessed beyond measure. It is in the people who have crossed my path and stopped to share extraordinary moments with me that I have become a woman of distinction. Perhaps there is no more interesting and accomplished person among those with whom I have shared a cup of tea than Seng-Dao Keo.
I met Seng through my work at KIPP Houston High School. She had been hired to teach Pre-Calculus and as the Dean of Faculty I was her supervisor. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was no doubt learning more from her than she would ever garner from me. Seng was a graduate of Harvard University with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from that august center of education. While she possessed a multitude of natural teaching abilities she was also dedicated to a lifetime of continuous learning. She quite earnestly heeded the tidbits of advice that I gave her and worked hard to improve her craft, never quite satisfied that she was doing enough.
Seng’s story captivated my interest. She quite proudly boasted of her Hmong ancestry, explaining that she had descended from hardy mountainous people who had often been misunderstood and persecuted throughout history. In more recent times they had been recruited by the United States during the Vietnam War to carry out military actions in a “secret war” in Laos. The American government ultimately denied any involvement in their covert actions and essentially left them to endure grave injustices from the very governments that they had attempted to defeat in a quest for democracy. Scores of Hmung people became refugees in our country and among them were Seng’s parents.
Seng grew up in Las Vegas, the daughter of hard working and proud people. When she showed great promise as a student her family encouraged her to think big and thus she decided to apply to Harvard University. Getting in was the easy part. Staying there was filled with challenges. Seng had little problem with the coursework because she is indeed a brilliant woman. What became the biggest obstacle for her was dealing with the social difficulties of attending a university where the vast majority of students came from the wealthy class. She often found herself feeling like a fish out of water as her classmates strutted around campus in their designer clothing and recounted stories of vacations at ski resorts and exotic locales. She adopted a bohemian persona that hid her economic differences. She also developed a strong sense of social justice and silently began to develop a plan for helping underserved children to become even better than they ever thought that they might be.
Seng met and married a like-minded young man while she was studying at Harvard. Her husband, Peter, was as talented and determined as she was. His family was Cambodian and they too had a remarkable story of survival. When Pol Pot was wielding his power in murderous fashion Peter’s mother barely made it out of the country alive. If not for the generosity of a German journalist she might have become another statistic in Pol Pot’s murderous rage. Instead with the help of several individuals she was able to successfully pose as a Filipino and take one of the last flights out of the country as it descended into chaos. Her story may be well known to anyone who has watched the movie The Killing Fields.
While in Paris Peter’s mother met a Cambodian student who was studying abroad and the two of them fell in love. When he was ordered back to Cambodia along with his fellow classmates she hid his passport so that he missed his flight. His friends were never heard from again and it was assumed that they were killed upon arrival back home. Peter, like Seng, ultimately became dedicated to the education of people from underserved communities and populations all around the world. The two of them are social justice warriors.
While at KIPP Houston High School Seng went beyond the requirements of her job to develop a leadership class for her students. She taught them how to feel confident and prepared them to ascend to the halls of power where they too might make a difference. She tirelessly created special programs and events including hosting poetry slams and charging her willing disciples to return their own good fortune to the community in works of service. She was not only an inspiration to her students but also to me.
Along the way Seng and I became friends. I learned more and more about this amazing young woman and found myself being continually in awe of her. When she announced that she and Peter were moving to Cambodia to work with the education community there I was sad to see her go but not at all surprised at her enthusiasm for this project. She knew that she was returning to a world that had been reduced to an horrific state. Whole generations had been left ignorant when Pol Pot so foolishly murdered the intelligentsia so that his power might be unquestioned. Seng saw her adventure as an opportunity to do important work that few wanted to undertake.
While in Cambodia Seng worked with passion and dedication just as she had always done. She realized that her influence might be even greater if only she possessed more impressive credentials and so she began to dream of earning a doctorate in education. She confided to me that she wanted to go back to Harvard and asked me to be one of her references. I was honored and believed with all of my being that the university would gain more from her presence than she would get from them. It was almost impossible for me to post on paper just how amazing Seng is and always has been. Fortunately the admissions officials at Harvard were wise enough to invite Seng to their program and she and Peter moved to the Cambridge area so that she might continue her education.
This spring Seng became Dr. Seng-Dao Keo, the first Hmung woman in history to earn three degrees from Harvard. She will no doubt become an important driving force in the educational community. She has already made an indelible mark as a representative of her people. I know that she left a lasting and positive impression on her students at KIPP Houston High School and she humbled me with her talents and aspirations. I sometimes have to pinch myself to believe that I might also call her my friend.
I haven’t seen Seng for quite some time. She has been quite busy studying and developing important programs. From time to time she takes a breather and spends a moment on Facebook. She has been one of the most ardent supporters of my blog and she sweetly takes the time to send me encouraging messages. That is so in keeping with her personality. Dr. Seng-Dao Keo is someone who will always remember being the daughter of refugees. She will be a powerful voice for those who are all too often unheard. She is a teacher and a friend. I count myself fortunate to know her.