When Xilang Yang thinks about her future, she is reminded of her parents past and the insurmountable obstacles they faced. As refugees of Laos, Yang’s parents were among the tens of thousands impacted by the Secret War. Forced to flee from the violence ravaging their homeland, they dreamt of making the journey to America. Their determination gave Yang the motivation to pursue higher education. 

Xilang Yang will earn her Master of Social Work degree on May 20, 2023 / Photo Credit: Cary Edmondson, Fresno State

“Education is extremely important to my parents because my mother could not afford to attend school and my father’s education was discontinued due to the Secret War,” Yang said. “My parents’ dream was to raise their oldest child and future children in America where they could feel safe and live free from the violence and chaos of war – and where they could preserve their Hmong cultural heritage and have educational opportunities.”

In her own words, Yang defines herself as a graduate student and social worker, but just as importantly – a first-generation Hmong American, Hmong daughter, caretaker and role model. On May 20th, Yang will add ‘master of social work’ to her titles. In addition to earning her Master of Social Work degree from Fresno State, Yang is also doing so with honors – as the graduate dean’s medalist for the College of Health and Human Services. 

When Yang initially returned to Fresno State for her master’s degree, she never imagined she would be recognized for such a prestigious honor. 

“It feels like a dream that I’m going to wake up from,” Yang said. 

Her graduate journey with Fresno State began just three years ago, but her relationship with the University dates back nearly a decade. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in criminology, with an emphasis in victimology, as well as a minor in psychology, from Fresno State in 2014. Since then, Yang has worked as a social worker for Tulare and Kings County. Returning for a master’s degree in social work was a natural decision for Yang. 

“I started to really look at my role as a social worker and realized that with so many policies and laws in place, I wanted to be able to do more,” Yang said. “I knew that having a master’s degree would give me more options to do so. The social work field also strongly aligns with my beliefs.”

Yang’s cultural pride and heritage drive her work going forward. She envisions a world where the Hmong community has access to mental health services, and through her work in the Department of Social Work Education’s Latino and Hmong Behavioral Health Project, Yang strives to be at the forefront of this. 

The project, part of a $1.9 million grant funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, aims to provide advanced training to deliver culturally responsive behavioral health services to the Latino/Hispanic and Hmong populations in the Central Valley. Yang was part of the second cohort to receive the grant and says the experience has been beneficial in expanding her social work skill set. 

“There are so many different cultures in Fresno and it’s important that we take the time to listen to our clients and be mindful of our differences,” Yang said. “Particularly with mental health, it’s a two-way street. If we want the Hmong community to embrace the western concept of mental health, then we need to embrace their customs, as well. In doing so, we can work together toward a common solution.”

Yang’s cultural knowledge, coupled with her years of professional social work experience, has been invaluable, according to her professors. 

“Xilang was a true leader in the classroom, asking important and challenging questions that led to discussions that enhanced not just her learning, but the learning of the rest of the class as well,” said Dr. Randy Nedegaard, professor in the Department of Social Work Education and Yang’s thesis chair. “Her presence in the classroom served as a learning enhancement. The appropriate risks she took by asking questions helped to empower other students to do the same, leading to the creation of a very positive learning environment for the entire semester. This is the kind of student Xilang is.”

In addition to her studies, Yang has been active on campus in other ways, including serving as president of the Asian Social Work Organization and serving on the board of the Phi Alpha National Honor Society (Fresno State Social Work Chi Nu Chapter) and the Social Work Student Association. 

L to R: Dean’s Graduate Medalist, Xilang Yang, CHHS Dean, Dr. Denise Seabert, Dean’s Undergraduate Medalist, Cherika Gamble / Photo credit: Cary Edmondson, Fresno State 

Going forward, Yang plans to become a licensed clinical social worker and intends to pursue a doctorate in social work in the future. Her ultimate goal is to develop programs and safe houses for victims of human trafficking and sexual and domestic violence. 

Yang knows that for every achievement earned, she stands tall on those who came before her and for all those who will come after her. 

“If I want the world to be a better place, I cannot sit and expect others to change it,” Yang said. “Mahatma Gandhi’s words ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’ inspire me to live my life in service to others. My education gives me the passion and the drive to make this world a better place for everyone and future generations to come.”

Xilang Yang was selected as the College of Health and Human Services’ Graduate Dean’s Medalist and is a candidate for the University Graduate Medalist award, 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.