Translating the immigrant experience into intercultural expertise

Associate Director Kia Lor of the Greenfield Intercultural Center supports students at Penn while navigating multiple cultures

Smiling woman with folded hands stands near Locust Walk
Kia Lor, a first-generation Hmong American, navigates interculturalism as the new associate director of Greenfield Intercultural Center. 

Kia Lor’s first day of work was the first day of shutdown on March 16, 2020. The new associate director of the Greenfield Intercultural Center (GIC) wasn’t new to campus however. Lor earned her master’s degree from the Graduate School of Education in 2016, specializing in intercultural communication. A high-achieving first-generation, low-income (FGLI) student, she had recently realized that she could make a career out of intercultural work, which she had done her entire life as a first-generation immigrant.

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Lor is one of six children, the eldest daughter on whom domestic responsibility falls, Lor says. Her family is Hmong, a “minority of minorities” in Southeast Asia and southwest China. The Hmong people fought alongside the U.S. military in what was supposed to be a covert anti-communist operation and later snowballed into the Vietnam War, Lor says. In exchange for their participation, the Hmong people were offered premier refugee status, which Lor’s mother wanted to use. Her father refused to come to the U.S., preferring to return to his homeland in Laos after the war, while her mother “wanted a better future with more opportunities for her children in the U.S.” Lor says. 

Her mother waited until her husband was out of town and marched up to the United Nations Refugee Agency, saying, “My husband died in war. I need to go to America, to this place called Minnesota,” where she had family, Lor says. “The only thing that my mom knew about an airplane was that it’s this bird, this metal bird, and you get inside the bird and it goes into the cloud, and it just disappears. You don’t know where it goes, but hopefully it takes you to the land of freedom.” 

Two Hmong women in traditional clothing pose with two children and a baby. Trees, buildings, and people are seen in the background
Hmong New Year in the Thailand refugee camp (1993). Left to right: Auntie Yee, infant Kia, Mom, little brother Yia, and big brother Phia. 

Arriving in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the summer of 1995, Lor found herself living a dual life. “When I’m at home, I am a Hmong daughter. I cook and clean, and I kill chickens,” she says. “When I go to school, I speak English, and I put on a different persona.” At first, she felt resentful. “My mom could not help me academically or culturally navigate the American system, as an immigrant parent and a single mother, yet I felt tremendous pressure to maintain Hmong cultural values,” Lor says. “I can’t ever be fully Hmong or fully American.” 

Lor pursued undergraduate studies close to home at the College of St. Benedict, where, as a communications major, she found language to describe her lived experience. “It’s not two different worlds that are competing with each other,” says Lor. “It’s how do I blend them,” honoring both her family responsibilities and the desire to build a career. Interculturalism is a bridge to navigate identity and world views, she says, and her mom was her first intercultural teacher.

A stint in AmeriCorps caused Lor to realize that teaching in the K-12 system was not her calling. She applied to graduate school and, with support from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program,  made the decision to leave Minnesota for Penn. “I had to take a leap of faith to move across the country with $800 in my bank account and two suitcases and figure it out when I got here,” she says. 

After becoming a cultural broker at a young age, Lor built a career out of this experience with the encouragement of mentors. “It’s not just about a one-day diversity and inclusion training, but how do you really live out a worldview with the skills and the attitudes that are needed in order to be inclusive?” she asks. “How do you navigate these different cultural systems with very different belief systems and different value systems?”

Lor, who has studied Spanish, Chinese, and Bengali in addition to being fluent in English and Hmong, says languages shape identity, power, and culture to give their speakers different worldviews. For example, many Asian cultures are collectivist, placing a strong emphasis on family, including family honor and the family name. Even extended family like maternal and paternal aunts and uncles have their own title and position. This means that her family’s culture is sometimes at odds with American culture, which is more individualist, she says. “It’s me, myself, I and not so much we.” Instead of seeing these two paradigms as opposing forces, Lor sees the strength in both cultures and helps students do the same. 

As the fall approaches, Lor is looking forward to more in-person collaboration with colleagues. At the GIC, “we really work together as a team, all hands on deck to make sure that all of our students are served. Our director, Valerie De Cruz, has been such an instrumental mentor to me,” she says. Lor will work closely with student organizations, such as the United Minorities Council, as well as first- and second-year students, some of whom will be stepping on Locust Walk for the first time. Lor will also be co-teaching the course Teaching Performance Arts for Cross-Cultural Education in the spring. 

In her new position, Lor hopes to amplify the voices of first generation, low-income students and make sure that they’re supported, both at Penn and beyond, so that Penn graduates are doing impactful work in the world. “There is a purpose, in terms of why they picked this institution and why they came here and left their families to come on this journey,” she says. 

Two women pose with Ben Franklin statue
Lor and her mother pose with Ben Franklin in 2016, when Lor graduated from Penn GSE. While initially worried about her daughter living away from home, Lor’s mother was later impressed. “I’m not concerned about you,” Lor’s mother told her after visiting. “You know how to find food and survive.”

As for her own journey, Lor is settling into life in Pennsylvania. Her mother came out to visit while she was in graduate school and was very impressed that Lor had furnished her apartment, fed herself, and figured out the train system. “She was like, wow, koj yeej muaj peev xwm kawg koj thiaj nyob tau li no (you have to be so brave to be out here like this).” She used the Hmong word “muaj peev xwm”, which is a combination of brave, strong, and confident,” Lor says. “And I’m like, Mom, I got that grit from you. I’m brave because you’re brave, right? I learned it from you.”