Journey of Self-Discovery Impacts Future Karen Communities

KuGay Nahpay ’20 has always known her purpose: to stand in solidarity and work alongside the Karen community. Her journey discovering how she could do that while honoring her gifts, talents, and desires has been both unpredictable and profoundly rewarding.

By Katie Johnson ’19, content specialist

May 06, 2022 | 12:30 p.m.

Social work major KuGay Nahpay '20 currently works as a youth career development counselor at the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM).

Social work major KuGay Nahpay '20 currently works as a youth career development counselor at the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM).

During her freshman year at Bethel, KuGay Nahpay ’20 found herself struggling in a chemistry course. She knew Bethel was where she was meant to be, but her struggles caused her to question her plans to become a nurse. She didn’t know what to do. She made an appointment with a career specialist in the Office of Career Development and Calling, who prayed with Nahpay and helped her dream of possible vocations to better match her personality assessments. Nahpay began to genuinely consider herself in a different role, but she wanted to connect with others who knew her well to ensure her decision to change fields was not impulsive, but respected and honored by those that mattered most to her. 

One friend's advice stuck with her. She said: “KuGay, it is special to know that you are not only here for your own growth, but for the Karen community as well.” 

The statement struck a chord with Nahpay. She realized her calling wasn’t just to nursing, it was to a desire to go back to Burma/Myanmar and serve the community. “All along, becoming a nurse was not for my personal desire and personal gain but to give back to my community. That purpose can help me through other careers,” she says. Nahpay then switched her major to social work to better fit her talents and abilities while remaining true to her passion of caring for the Karen community.

Five years later, Nahpay is working as a youth career development counselor at the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM). She helps middle and high school Karen students explore potential careers and connects them to personal and professional development opportunities. She connects them with both internal and external communities and then offers inclusive and culturally sensitive resources to help them achieve what they want to do. She says her role is all about encouraging and inspiring these students, who in turn inspire her.

“Some students are undecided and some are very decisive, so every person is on a different path. I’m walking with them through all of it. I’m with them through their journey, ready to step back and step up when it’s needed because they’re the experts of their life and choices.”

— KuGay Nahpay

To effectively support the students she works with, Nahpay draws on her own experience as part of the Karen community in Minnesota. She remembers what it was like to strive to do her best in middle and high school, crying when she received a C in a class because she knew she could do better. She participated in programs like the ones KOM currently offers, particularly Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID).

AVID works to close the opportunity gap by partnering with schools and districts to support students ages five to 16 who have the potential to become first-generation college students. Nahpay was introduced to AVID in eighth grade and participated in the program throughout high school. She learned how to be openminded and start dreaming about how she could impact the world. “My goals are very targeted to my current community,” Nahpay says. “That’s who I am. I am multi-ethnic. I’m mixed. I grew up in the Karen community and I identify myself as Karen.” The program helped her figure out what she was passionate about while showing her how to give back to her community. She volunteered for after school programs at Central Park Elementary School in Roseville, Minnesota, from her freshman year in high school to her senior year in college, and even in her role at KOM, she’s working alongside some of the students she worked with eight years ago.

AVID, along with her family and circles of influence, helped her realize how much she wanted to go to Bethel. Students in the program toured colleges in the Twin Cities, including Bethel, where the core values displayed outside Student Life caught Nahpay’s eye. Bethel’s values—Christ-followers, character-builders, salt and light, learners, truth seekers, world-changers, and reconcilers—resonated with her, and she knew that she wanted to attend Bethel to further develop and practice the values she already held dear.

During her time at Bethel, Nahpay grew as a person and a leader. In addition to her positions as a resident assistant (RA) and BUILD housing mentor, she worked as a student manager in the Monson Dining Center and developed deep relationships with faculty, staff, and her peers. She helped lead a mission trip to Thailand over winter break her senior year, which held tremendous personal meaning to her as part of the Karen community. She graduated in 2020 near the beginning of the pandemic, and while she was confident about her field, she searched for a role that would impact the community that mattered most to her.

Nahpay is grateful to have an avenue to share her experiences with the next generation of Karen students and youth in Minnesota. Nahpay was especially thankful to be working at KOM during February 2021, when a military coup started in Burma/Myanmar. She worked with staff and students who also carried generational trauma from decades of Karen displacement due to unrest between Burman and Karen in Myanmar (formerly Burma).

The youth, staff, families, and friends Nahpay worked with still had family back home during the military coup. Twice last year, she visited Washington, D.C., to advocate through spoken word and live performance. She helped organize a fundraising event to support families and friends back home, incredibly grateful for the support system she had from the staff and students in the KOM community.

“Many lost friends; many lost family members,” Nahpay says. “I’m so honored to be part of KOM because I am with them. We are in this together.”

Study social work at Bethel.

Through the social work program at Bethel University, you will learn about human rights, ethical practice, social justice, and reconciliation from a deeply-rooted Christian faith perspective so you can bring hope to individuals and communities locally and abroad.

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