When Kristy Yang arrived in the United States as a refugee at the age of 6, the only English words she knew were: “Pepsi, please.”
With the support of public school teachers in Wisconsin, she became fluent in English and her native Hmong language, and has now gone on to become a Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge, the first female Hmong-American judge elected in our nation’s history.
Judge Yang spoke Feb. 7 to students at Lincoln Middle School and visiting Hmong students from other district schools, telling her story of overcoming adversity. “If we remain focused, if we stay committed to ourselves … there is a way out of our situation, a way to overcome our challenges,” Judge Yang told students.
Her travel expenses to visit La Crosse were paid for through a $456 grant from the La Crosse Public Education Foundation. The grant to Lincoln Counselor Rick Blasing was underwritten by Wells Fargo.
For Yang, education was the pathway to opportunity.
She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand following the Vietnam War. Her family migrated to the United States and eventually to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. She is one of 11 children.
She remembers the friendship of a classmate named Norby, who reached out to her when he realized she did not understand the instructions of the teacher. “He reminded me that yes, people my age did care, and that they can be understanding. … Norby helped me.”
Judge Yang told students it takes patience to work through adversity. “You have to be patient with yourself, and to learn how to navigate these challenges because your success depends on it.”
She encouraged students to pursue community service opportunities, helping them learn how to be compassionate. “You know what, you think you’ve got it tough — someone else has it tougher,” she said.