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Board of Directors Reflection: May Thao-Schuck

Posted: Monday, December 12, 2022 - 8:21 AM

May Thao-Schuck youngster

May Thao-Schuck was born in Laos and spent time in refugee camps in Thailand before journeying to the United States as a 5-year-old. Through heart, perseverance and culturally-challenging times, Thao-Schuck followed a path that created opportunities through education and activities.

Editors Note: Prior to the Minnesota State High School League's Board of Directors Meeting being called to order, a Board Member provides a personal reflection. At the most recent Board of Directors Meeting on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, Board Member May Thao-Schuck shared her journeys to the United States and through education and activities. 

Thank you to the Minnesota State High School League’s Board of Directors for asking me to share a reflection this month.

I was born in Laos and lived in Thailand's refugee camps before arriving in Chicago in December, 1979. I was five years old and felt extremely blessed that my family was one of the fortunate ones sponsored to come to America. The sponsorship was possible because my father, and many other Hmong men and boys, helped the U.S. during the Vietnam War. 

Coming to America was quite the experience. It was the first time I:

  • had flown
  • saw people that looked different than me and spoke different languages 
  • saw snow
  • saw electronics
  • saw stores, large buildings, highways, parks 
  • wore a coat
  • wore pants 
  • had shoes other than a pair of sandals that my sisters and I shared
  • had fast food such as McDonald's . . . The Big Mac was my favorite
  • had candies

And so much more.

After my family arrived with my parents and four siblings, my two older sisters, who were seven and six, and we were enrolled in elementary school. We didn't speak the language, and people consistently ridiculed how we looked and talked. 

While we were in school, my parents worked at manufacturing companies, cleaned homes, and farmed after their full-time jobs. After school and during the summers, my sisters and I picked cucumbers with them to support our family. Therefore, my sisters and I have been working since we arrived in Chicago. I was also responsible for watching my younger brother and sister, even though I was just five years old when I didn’t work and my sisters went to work with my parents.

On days my older sisters and I didn't work, we would go dumpster diving and crab apple picking. We roamed throughout the streets and highways of Chicago, not knowing the danger or that it wasn’t safe for children to walk around without adults to gather food and cans. I still recall crossing busy highways and picking apples as cars drove by, honking and yelling at us to return to our country. However, we didn't care because we needed to love the apples and wanted to help our family with food.  

One of the joys of living on the south side of Chicago was going to the park every evening by Lake Michigan to jump rubber bands and play rocks, which are Hmong games that children played in Laos and Thailand. The best part about the park was watching people doing sports, jogging, roller skating, and playing at the playground, which was all new to us. The most intriguing was seeing women play sports and exercise since they were prohibited for Hmong women. 

In Laos and Thailand, if boys were fortunate enough, they played soccer, "Tou-loo," otherwise known as top spin here, and puckleball, which is a combination of volleyball and soccer. However, those things were not anything women could participate in.

Living in America was entirely different than the refugee camps. In the refugee camps, we didn't go to school or see anyone exercise or play sports. Instead, we were consistently starved and witnessed people in pain, fearing for their lives of being killed daily. Going to school was never even in our vision, and certainly not sports.    

After living in Chicago for a few years, my family moved to Wisconsin and Minnesota to join other family members and for my parents to have better job opportunities. They worked incredibly hard, each holding two full-time jobs and farming simultaneously to make ends meet, while the seven of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the East Side of St. Paul.  

Growing up, school was not a priority for me. Much of that was because of what I heard that women should not focus on school. A woman's place in life was to serve a man, be a good wife, and have children for the family. Most importantly, women should never make a decision without considering what is best for their family and community and never bring shame to their families. Therefore, my goal was to hurry up and get married before I was old and undesirable. 

Getting married was my primary focus, even at a very young age, so I never thought much about school or anything else, such as having a career, going to college, or sports. However, in sixth grade, my gym teacher noticed that I was coordinated and relatively athletic, and I really enjoyed her gym class. She encouraged me to play soccer, which I thought was crazy since I had never played. Yet, she continued urging me to try something new to determine if I would like it. The decision to play was scary since I knew it was not allowed or supported. 

Even though I knew playing soccer would not be supported, my curiosity and the recognition and encouragement from the coach were enough for me to try soccer at Cleveland Junior High School. I wasn't great at soccer, but I had a lot of fun doing it. I felt incredible about my ability to try something new, even though it was terrifying. I especially liked how I felt physically and emotionally, working in a team with others and working towards a goal since I had never thought much about physical health or goals. I didn't know women could have goals. 

After soccer, I decided to stretch myself and try volleyball. I immediately fell in love with it, even though I was terrible initially. However, my coach continued encouraging me to keep trying my best and not worry about what others think. She also reminded me that sports were something I did for myself. 

Although I was awful in the beginning to the point that no one wanted me on their teams, girls would target me on the court. Sometimes it was because of my poor skills, and other times it was being one of the "only" Hmong students on the team. Many teammates ridiculed me that I should be doing "kung fu" since I was Bruce Lee's sister. Nevertheless, I ignored them and kept pushing myself with the support of my coach. 

Although my coaches were supportive, my parents were unhappy and did not support me. When my parents learned I played, they and other members shamed me for participating and felt women should not play sports or wear shorts, and doing so would bring shame to our community. Therefore, I played volleyball secretly, which was extremely difficult as a young woman. 

With discipline, hard work, persistence, self-determination, and my coaches' continuous support, I continued developing as a volleyball player. I continued advancing my athletic skills, and quickly, and in high school, I became a solid Johnson High School volleyball player. During that time, sports became more well-known in the Hmong community, more Hmong women began participating in sports, and I became one of the better players in the community. In fact, my parents saw what sports meant for me, my sisters, and Hmong women and became our biggest cheerleaders, mainly because our team won many Hmong tournaments. 

After high school, I didn't get married and went to the University of Minnesota, continued playing intramural volleyball, and participated in community sports. Later, I went on to pursue my master’s and doctorate degrees.  

I share my journey with you today because participating in sports and having incredible coaches in my life who consistently pushed me to believe in myself and be my best is one of my most profound and paramount experiences for me. Playing sports was one of the bravest and most important things I had done as a Hmong-American woman to find my voice. It's one of the primary reasons I went on to college, became the first Hmong personal trainer, opened the first Hmong gym, and held various leadership roles throughout my career.

The role of sports and being an athlete has significantly and positively impacted me. Here are some examples: 

  • It gave me the opportunity to learn to think critically and problem-solve.
  • It gave me confidence even when no one believed in me. 
  • It allowed me to be authentic and express myself even when others did not accept me.
  • It cultivated me to become the kind of leader I wanted to see and be in the world.
  • It gave me the agency to fight for the things I believe in.
  • It has taught me to lift people up, not tear them down. 
  • It taught me how to lead and work with others to achieve common goals.
  • It helped me set personal goals when women were not supposed to have goals.

And there are so many more examples. 

I feel incredibly honored to serve on this Board as a parent because I know its impact on young athletes and performers because I was one of them many years ago. The Minnesota State High School League is doing important work to provide equitable access, opportunities, and spaces for youth to find their voices by empowering and cultivating them as leaders we need in this world that makes our communities, society, and the world better. 

I leave by saying "thank you" to this League and all of you: the officials, athletic directors, coaches, administrators, volunteers, parents, athletes, performers, and communities for making sports and Fine Arts possible. You are changing lives every day, and you make our world better. You are paving the way forward for women and athletics like myself for generations to come. THANK YOU!


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