Proud to Live ‘a Different Story’

Act Six Scholar Tu Lor Eh Paw ’22 is a Karen immigrant and first-generation college student who sees life in Bethel’s tight-knit community as an opportunity to shatter stereotypes.

By Monique Kleinhuizen '08, GS'16, new media strategist

May 03, 2019 | 7 a.m.

Tu Lor Eh Paw '22

Tu Lor Eh Paw is a first-year student at Bethel this year, majoring in business with an emphasis in marketing.

Tu Lor Eh Paw ’22 isn’t new to adversity.

The youngest of nine, her mother died when she was two. Three of her siblings died before age 18. Living in a small village in Burma—now Myanmar—there were only ten families in her community, all of whom were relatives. At age five, when her dad moved her siblings to Thailand to give them a shot at an education, Paw stayed home to care for her blind grandmother. Her only schooling came from an aunt, at home starting at age seven.

As subsistence farmers living in the middle of political unrest and violence between their Karen people group and insurgents, the family struggled to put food on the table and scrape out a living. Paw and three siblings eventually moved to a refugee camp with an aunt, seeing their father only occasionally. In 2011—once again desperate for educational opportunities and a better life—her father took Paw and three of her siblings to America.

She recalls how the trip overseas was one of the strangest experiences of her life. Paw was new to most forms of transportation, never having been in a car or a plane before. “I was sick the whole way,” she says. “We don’t really celebrate birthdays in my family, and I didn’t even realize until years later that the day we arrived—March 9, 2011—was my 11th birthday. The first day, the only word I knew how to say was ‘hi,’ because I had heard it so many times on the airplane.”

They had never seen snow before and didn’t have many clothes. They didn’t speak any English. But a Karen family picked them up at the airport and got them connected with the Karen Organization of Minnesota, which helped them adjust to life in America. They were assigned an apartment with an oven and a fridge, two more American luxuries they had never had before. With the help of Trinity Karen Baptist Church, they slowly got to know others in the community, many of whom were also refugees from war-torn Southeast Asia. Paw started attending Como Park Elementary School, where she was part of a formal classroom for the first time and began learning English.

“Not knowing the language was really hard. It was hard to make friends. We have a different alphabet, different everything,” Paw says. “But the teachers were amazing.” Near the end of high school, Paw visited Bethel University through a program at school, and she remembers being in awe of the beautiful campus and tight-knit community. She knew she wanted to attend someday, but wasn’t sure how she’d make the finances work. Then she found out about the full-tuition, full-need Act Six scholarship program for young leaders.

“I remember thinking ‘wow, it’s been laid out for me,’” Paw says. “My dad sacrificed everything he had in order for my siblings and I to go to school. I feel like I owe it to him to do well. And also to excel in my community, to help those who are in need. I want to be an example for my peers.”

As a first-year student at Bethel this year, she’s majoring in business with an emphasis in marketing. An avid badminton player, she missed the sport she had come to love in middle school, so she started Bethel’s first-ever club team. She’s a member of Asian Christian Fellowship and will be a coach for younger students of color through the Peer Empowerment Program (PEP) next year.

“In my family, at least, this is a big deal. I’m the youngest, and I feel like I have to make something of myself,” she says. “My dad wanted all of us to go to college, but I’m the first one to do it. When I go home and go to church or my dad’s friends’ houses, they just give me this feeling of pride. They all ask if I’m enjoying college. People just respect me.”

When she’s on campus, Paw says many of her classmates have no idea what she’s been through. Her required first-year Inquiry Seminar course has focused on diversity, and her class watched the TEDTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” from African novelist Chimamanda Adichie. As they discussed the value in diverse voices and related issues like mass incarceration, immigration, and refugees, Paw had a much different reaction than her other, mostly white classmates.
Bethel student and Act Six Scholar Tu Lor Eh Paw '22

Bethel student and Act Six Scholar Tu Lor Eh Paw '22

“I love that the Inquiry Seminar classroom is full of students from a variety of backgrounds, interests, and majors. It is a human tendency to surround ourselves with people who are similar to ourselves, so we spend much of our time with people who share our interests, whether that be a common sport, major, or hobby,” says Adjunct Instructor Abbey Payeur, who teaches Paw’s class. “But when we are in heterogeneous groups, our perspectives are expanded. We hear different ideas, perspectives, and experiences. And if we work hard in these situations, there is such an opportunity for growth. No one person has all the right answers, but when we engage together in authentic dialogue, we find a deeper understanding of any given issue.”

Though it wasn’t easy, Paw realized the power in sharing her story in that class, and even agreed to testify before the Minnesota State Senate at the Minnesota Private College Council (MPCC) Day at the Capitol on March 12.

In many ways, Paw lives concurrently in several different worlds. At Bethel, she’s a confident scholar who connects easily with students who look like her and those who don’t. At home with her family and friends in St. Paul, she speaks the Sgaw Karen dialect instead of English. She eats dakabaw congee soup and secretly wishes Bethel’s Dining Center served more comfort foods like the ones she eats at home. But her true home—rural Myanmar, a spot without electricity, that she can’t even locate on a map—is where her heart and extended family remain. She and her siblings dream of starting a school near where they grew up, so that future Karen students in the region won’t have to walk three hours each way to school if they want to get an education.

Through Act Six, Paw will be able to finish college without debt, freeing her up to follow that dream. In the meantime, she’ll pursue American citizenship—which is about a six-year process—while investing in younger students of color and sharing her story with anyone who will listen. She finds deep encouragement from biweekly meetings with the thirty other Act Six scholars who come from different backgrounds and study different subjects, but share a desire to use their Bethel degrees to impact their communities for good.

I am an immigrant and a refugee, and I’m proud to be one. I want people to know refugees are not scary and that they should be respected like anyone else. Like me, they’re just trying to make something of themselves. I’m learning to be faithful and put my life in God’s hands. I’m trying my best to not be scared, to speak up when I need to.

— Tu Lor Eh Paw '22

Act Six at Bethel University

This May, the first cohort of Act Six scholars will graduate from Bethel. Inspired by the sixth chapter in the book of Acts, the Act Six program is designed to develop a diverse network of local leaders who are committed to building vibrant communities where everyone thrives. Bethel has partnered with local faith-based community affiliate Urban Ventures, who helps to recruit top-quality student leaders. Once selected, Bethel provides full-tuition, full-need scholarships for 10 scholars each year to study here. Act Six scholars engage in long-term mentoring and leadership development opportunities throughout their time at Bethel, under the care of the Intercultural Student Programs and Services team.

Learn More about Act Six