When Bessie Yang returned for her master’s degree four years ago, she did so for two reasons: to inspire and break barriers within her family and because her passion for the field was only getting stronger. This past December, she received her Master of Public Health degree, with an option in Health Promotion, with a 3.92 GPA.
She is proud to be an alumna of the University, but most of all – she is proud to be the first in her large family to obtain a graduate degree. As she stated in her personal narrative, she is an anomaly, defined as something unusual or unexpected. In her case, she is anomaly within her Hmong culture. As a first-generation student of Hmong descent, she grew up in a culture that did not value higher education for females. She broke that mold, and has continued to be a source of inspiration for those around her, particularly her siblings and young cousins. The middle child of seven children, Yang hopes to spread the knowledge that education is important especially to young Hmong girls.
“When I go back to these big Hmong family events, I tell them about college and you can just see the stars in their eyes,” Yang said. “It’s awesome.”
She credits her parents for recognizing the strength of education and allowing their daughters to take that important path.
“We had parents that uncharacteristically encouraged us to go to school and better our lives than what they had,” Yang said. “My parents came here as refugees from Laos. They had a very, very hard life, but from a young age, they instilled in us a fire that if we wanted a better life, we have to educate ourselves and take advantage of opportunities.”
She now applies that message to her career as a Health Education Specialist with the Fresno County Department of Public Health, where she is actively involved with community organizing, policy work, and working with city officials and stakeholders – but she states the best part of the job is helping community residents advocate for themselves and truly find their voice.
“It’s a very powerful movement, letting people know they have a voice and teaching them how to use it,” Yang said. “People in the community don’t realize how much power they really have. They get talked down so much that they don’t realize their voice is important and people need to hear it. Helping them build up that courage and recognize their own strength is a very fulfilling, amazing experience.”
Her strong passion for researching the racial, ethnic and cultural disparities that exist in our communities led to her master’s thesis that explored the cultural competency of Fresno State nursing students. She was even given the opportunity to serve as a graduate research assistant for the School of Nursing, allowing her a broader lens into that world. She says being in the medical field, it’s important to not look at people as statistics, but as human beings.
“We tend to clump people together and I think it’s really important to see different colors and recognize that people are different and you should treat them accordingly,” Yang said. “Through my thesis, I wanted to see how equipped nursing students are to deal with such big issues such as equity in patients.”
Yang took her experience at Fresno State and embraced it wholeheartedly, remaining active on campus and taking advantage of the many internships and opportunities. In her eight years on campus, she’s completed a 200+ hour internship with West Fresno Family Resource Center, where she engaged in community planning and assessment for the underserved communities of Fresno, as well as applied for several influential grants. Her campus involvement included serving as a Family PACT Peer Health Educator through the Student Health Center at Fresno State and as a member of the American Student Medical Association on campus.
Her participation in the UCSF Health Careers Opportunity Program was particularly life-changing for her. As a first-generation college student, having programs like HCOP, which helps students from economically and/or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds navigate the health care field, was extremely beneficial for her – and she credits Fresno State for providing students, like herself, tools to attain success.
“Bessie brought a unique perspective to the classroom that enhanced the learning experience of her peers,” said Dr. Vickie Krenz, professor in the Department of Public Health and Yang’s longtime mentor. “She had an insatiable desire to understand the public health issues that impact the Central Valley region, and she has invested a tremendous amount of energy to her professional preparation from Fresno State. I have no doubt that she will continue to make a significant impact.”
Bessie hopes to continue her research and partnership with Fresno State – a university that she is has grown to love.
“I am proud to be part of Fresno State. It’s a community that really recognizes the need for people, like myself, to better themselves and be educated in order to build a better community. Being a bulldog, you realize your own social responsibility to the community.”
Bessie Yang is a candidate for the prestigious California State University, Fresno University Graduate Medal, which is the highest honor the University presents to a graduate student. The University Graduate Medalist is selected from the nine graduate Dean’s Medalists who represent the academic colleges and schools and the Division of Student Affairs. The awardee will be announced at the University Commencement on May 21, 2016.