Ameena Chai Vue has always understood her duties as the youngest daughter among eight siblings. When her mother was diagnosed with diabetes, then took a hard fall and tore a meniscus in her knee, Vue moved home to take care of her.
It didn't matter that she was thriving at the University of California at Davis, or that she was the only girl in her family pursuing higher education. Despite her disappointment, Vue knew what her family expected of her and moved back to help take care of her three younger brothers, mother and stepfather, who is partially blind.
But Vue never abandoned her own ambitions.
She quickly enrolled at Fresno City College, where she's graduating Friday with an associate's degree in math and the highest honor given to a graduate, the Dean's Medallion of Excellence. It's the first step toward her goal of earning a doctorate in math and someday becoming a math professor. The diploma has a deeper meaning, too, she said. In many ways, the 21-year-old is replacing her Hmong family's conservative traditions that say she should marry young and settle down with new dreams of making a successful career and life for herself.
"(This degree) means I can achieve anything I want to achieve," Vue said.
Vue emigrated from Laos in 1995 when she was 3. There was "a culture clash, and a language barrier" for her four older siblings, she said. But not her: She grew up learning English and helping her older brother and sisters as they struggled to keep up in school.
She watched as her three older sisters each married quickly after graduating from high school. Many of her friends at McLane High School followed the same path. A few who got pregnant as teenagers dropped out and married even sooner.
"They just got married and became housewives," she said. "I feel like in my culture, it doesn't matter how successful a woman becomes."
The narrative of Vue's siblings and friends isn't unique. But for more and more Hmong women like Vue, the story is changing.
Fifteen years ago when Fresno City College professor John Cho asked the Hmong women in his Asian American studies class if they were married, "all the hands would go up."
These days when he asks the same question, "very few ... are married."
Cho, who doesn't know Vue, has taught Asian American studies classes at Fresno City for the better part of the past two decades. There wasn't one Hmong women in his courses when he first took the job. There's "a lot more" now, he said, a change he attributes to a dwindling focus on early marriage and a mind-set shift among both the older and younger generations.
For second-generation students like Vue, there are two gaps to overcome, Cho said. There's the generation gap any child might face, "but I think they have an extra gap and it really ties in with cultural expectations," he said.
Many Hmong women are now expected to help with household chores -- and also do well in school, he said.
Vue has long struggled with these dueling obligations. In some ways, her family's cultural traditions seem to reign. Yet when Vue talks to her mother about college, she encourage Vue to study medicine.
"I just tell her I'm going to pursue what I want," Vue said. "That way I would be motivated to keep going."
Ghia Xiong, program director for the Fresno Center of New Americans, works with Southeast Asian parents to help them understand the unique pressures their children face.
"I hear a lot of, 'Why aren't these kids listening to us, why aren't they being the traditional daughter we ask them to be?' The parents don't understand the importance of, 'I have a final to (study for),' " he said.
But he also sees more Hmong women breaking "the myth in the Hmong culture that only the boys are capable."
Sometimes all it takes is a little push. Vue will tell you she never intended to go to college. She says she would have settled down after high school without the encouragement of her high school teacher Todd Sanders, who now teaches at Sequoia Middle.
"I remember her always being a very conscientious student, always very concerned with her future, always very grateful for her opportunity to get an education," Sanders said. "She was always very dedicated to her family."
Sanders taught a class at McLane aimed at getting low-income and minority students on track to attend a four-year college. Through the class, Vue decided she wanted to attend UC Davis. She won a $20,000 scholarship when she graduated, money she used to help pay for her first year and a half there.
She has about $10,000 left and plans to use the money to pay for Fresno State classes next year to complete her bachelor's degree. She hopes to get her teaching credential and teach math to middle or high school students while she pursues her doctorate degree.
"As long as I don't give up and stay determined to achieve my goals, I can do it," she said.
Community college graduations
College of the Sequoias (Visalia): 7 p.m. Friday at Mineral King Bowl.
West Hills College Lemoore: 6:30 p.m Friday on campus.
Fresno City College: 6:30 p.m. Friday at Selland Arena.
Madera Community College Center: 6 p.m. Friday on campus.
Reedley College: 6:30 p.m. Friday on campus.
Willow International Community College Center: 6:30 p.m. Friday, Clovis Hills Community Church.
West Hills College Coalinga: 6:30 p.m. Friday on campus.
Porterville College: May 16.
Fresno City College awards
Fresno City College honored the winners of the Dean's Medallion of Excellence Award last week; each award winner represents a division of the college:
Applied Technology: Peter Acevedo, Fresno
Business: Steven Machado, Fresno
Guidance and Counseling, Student Services: Carlos J. Corona, Fowler
Fine, Performing and Communication Arts: Jarod H.L. Rocker, Fresno
Health Sciences: Sary Pham, Fresno
Humanities: Veronica Sylvia Torres, Fresno
Math, Science and Engineering: Ameena Chai Vue, Fresno
Social Sciences: Ilenia Isel Hernandez, Mendota
If you go
Fresno City College Commencement Ceremony: 6:30 p.m. Friday, Selland Arena
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.