For Dr. MayKao Hang, the founding dean of St. Thomas’ new Morrison Family College of Health, creating bold programs to end disparities in healthcare isn’t simply a professional matter; it’s also a personal one.
Growing up a Hmong refugee in Minnesota, Hang was already noticing inequities embedded into the lived experience of her community. “I grew up interpreting in health clinics because nobody could speak my language,” she said. “I could see that there were a lot of disparities in how immigrants and refugees were being treated.”
At the same time, she gained a strong “service mentality” towards her community.
“There was always a new refugee immigrant family that was living with my family, and I always had cousins I was taking care of, or feeding or getting to the welfare office,” recalls Hang.
Her dedication to good never wavered. After finishing her undergraduate degree in psychology at Brown University, her master’s degree in public affairs from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and a doctorate in public administration, she said she “decided to dedicate my life to improving the lives of others.”
One of Dr. Hang’s early jobs was to create a violence prevention initiative within the Hmong community. She was a community organizer, managed volunteers and created new programs to address violence in Ramsey County through the Initiative for Violence Free Families and Communities housed at the Wilder Foundation.
“It was because I have a passion for young people,” Hang explains. “And also, because I knew that there were a lot of bad things happening in the community and I knew that some of the Hmong organizations were afraid to tackle domestic abuse and gang violence, and they were afraid to actually talk about some of the root causes of the violence that was happening in the community, including a lack of intercultural understandings between the generations, and healthcare systems not knowing how to support refugee kids and families.”
Hang didn’t know that so much of her job would intertwine with healthcare, but as she soon found out, “80% of healthcare actually occurs outside of a hospital room and facility setting.”
She was quick to learn: “I wasn’t trained on that in school, but I learned it on the job.”
“My specialty area is looking at health through the lens of the community, and also, where we have gaps and needs,” says Hang. “A lot of what puts people in poverty is actually a lack of good physical, mental health and just really no social connections,” Hang says. Consequently, her work of promoting wellbeing only advanced as she went on to be the Resident Services Director of the St. Paul Public Housing Agency, and then the Director of Adult Services in Ramsey County before getting the call back to work at the Wilder Foundation. This time she served as the Children and Family Services Director and became CEO for 10 years. All the while, she was working on her doctorate degree in public administration and raising four children.
Creating ground-up initiatives is a familiar task, and she’s well-prepared to do it as dean. “I’ve spent 24 years promoting health and wellbeing in the community and working on broad policy reforms and actually delivering services. And I thought it was time to pay it forward to the next generation.”
“We need to shift the status quo. We need to think more holistically about health,” Hang says to describe her goal. As dean, she advocates for equitable treatment towards underserved communities and treating the person with a multidimensional approach for mind, body, spirit and community.
“We need to change how we think about and how we design systems.”
Hang’s plan with the Morrison Family College of Health isn’t only to produce physicians and nurses– she aims to equip the next generation of leaders to transform the way health services are run, through the “guiding principles” of “advocacy and systems change.” Hang doesn’t consider creating a college with this ambitious vision as a daunting task. “I’m a disrupter, I’ve always been one. I like transformation and that’s really what we’re doing in the Morrison College of Health.”
Fulfilling her other responsibility as a dean, she also has a personal duty to support the students. “I tell people all the time, which is why I’m in higher ed right now, that the journey to complete college was the hardest journey I’ll ever have in my whole lifetime.”
“I was completely outclassed in every single way,” says Hang. Although she earned a full scholarship to Brown University, the university couldn’t support her in the ways that counted. She was still using a typewriter and had to work three jobs to afford a meal plan and board.
As a first-generation college student, she faced the pressure from the expectations she was up against.
“I had to be strong enough to go against the traditions, culturally of my own community to make it out of poverty and through school, and then I also had to do that at school, because I went to such an elite university.”
Her experience is nothing new, and nothing old either. “It’s what a lot of students at St. Thomas deal with as well. It’s not a new experience, which is why when we graduate a first-gen college student at St. Thomas,” or any disadvantaged background, she adds, “it’s a really big deal.”
Hang has no plans to stop breaking barriers, both in her personal journey and in health care.
“Part of leadership is just about continuing to do what’s in front of you and not believing what the world has told you that you can’t do. And so, I always tell people how I got here is overcoming people telling me that I can’t do something.”