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Ed.D. Student Seeks To Advance Refugee Education With Support from Prestigious Grant

Hsajune Dyan GS’19 works as the Karen Cultural Specialist at the St. Paul Public Schools district headquarters.

When Hsajune Dyan GS’19 came to Minnesota with his family as a 17-year-old refugee, he spoke very little English and knew almost nothing about the state he now calls home. “The states we knew were California, New York, and Texas,” he says with a laugh.

Since then, Dyan has found the Twin Cities to be a surprisingly accessible home for refugees—especially those belonging to the Karen ethnic group, like himself. But one glaring problem remains. “Oftentimes parents don’t really know how to navigate the school system or advocate for themselves,” Dyan says. “I want to be the face and the voice for this underserved population.” With a successful career in education, doctoral training at Bethel University underway, and his selection as a 2017 Bush Fellow, Dyan is making that dream a reality.

Dyan was born in Burma—where the Karen people have been persecuted for many years and endured deep military and political conflict. When Dyan was a toddler, his family fled to Thailand and found safety in refugee camps. Now fluent in Burmese, Karen, Thai, and English, Dyan uses the technical skills and cultural insights gleaned from his childhood to serve others as St. Paul Public Schools’ Karen Cultural Specialist.

In his role, Dyan translates educational materials, facilitates parent trainings and advisory meetings, and coordinates district-wide parent events. “I’m very much interested in education equity, especially in urban school districts where we have a high population who are non-English-speakers,” he says. In St. Paul schools, Karen is the third most popular non-English language spoken after Hmong and Spanish.

But Dyan’s advocacy efforts extend far beyond his day job. In 2017 he became the board chair for the Karen Organization of Minnesota—a nonprofit that educates others about Karen culture and provides social services to Karen refugees. Dyan formally advocates for the community with state agencies and other organizations empowered to make policy changes. He also volunteers informally to support his community in whatever way he can. “We have quite a large amount of second migration—those who came from Thailand or a different U.S. state and then found that St. Paul would be a better fit for the family, so they moved here,” he explains. “So the community is (always) growing.” As a result, Minnesota is home to the largest Karen community in the country, according to the Karen Organization website.

It’s no wonder that Dyan—who has exhibited a passion for education and determination to lead—was one of 24 leaders from Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota selected to be a 2017 Bush Fellow. With this distinction, Dyan will be awarded up to $100,000 to invest in his community-strengthening leadership development. He plans to use a portion of the funds to travel back to Thailand and Burma, where he will speak with educational leaders to gain a better understanding of the educational landscape and the circumstances that U.S. refugee students from these areas have lived in. The remainder will go toward funding his Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Leadership in K-12 Administration program.

When Dyan earns his degree, he will become the first Karen licensed school administrator in the state, according to St. Paul Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Dr. Efe Agbamu. The achievement is a significant step in earning more representation for the Karen community. “Hsajune will have that understanding and background in regard to what [Karen students] are bringing to school, and also could serve as a role model to them,” says Ed.D. program director Tracy Reimer.

For Dyan, this in itself is a major breakthrough. “Coming from an underrepresented community in the field of education, we do not see a lot of male representatives,” he says, explaining that he wants to be the positive example he didn’t have as a student.

In attending Bethel, Dyan has already achieved a longtime goal. “During high school I came to Bethel for a college tour,” he says. “[At that time] I could not afford to come, but I was thinking some day I wanted to go to Bethel, because here, I can both practice my faith and learn how to be a leader and serve communities.” Dyan was initially drawn to Bethel because of his Baptist upbringing—a popular denomination among Karen Christians—but has since come to value the school’s inclusiveness and strong emphasis on servant leadership. Because of this, he hopes to encourage more of the students and families he works with to consider Bethel. “It would be great if Bethel reached out to our community,” he says. “Because I want our students from the urban school district to come here.”

For Reimer and colleague Craig Paulson, students like Dyan don’t just come to Bethel to learn and grow themselves—their presence leaves an important mark on Bethel’s culture. “It’s not a one-way street,” Paulson says. “We have been touched by [Dyan], and his conversations in our classes. Bethel has been impacted by him, just as the rest of the world is going to be.”

Students in Bethel’s Ed.D. in Leadership program come from all over the world (seven known countries other than the U.S. during the 2016–2017 school year) and work in a diverse range of U.S. districts and international schools. Learn more about Bethel’s Ed.D. in Leadership degree programs

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