Apparel graduate works her way to degree, promising future

By University Communications
May 12, 2017
Mee Chang, of Wausau, graduated May 6 at UW-Stout with a degree in apparel design and development.

Photo: Mee Chang, of Wausau, graduated May 6 at UW-Stout with a
degree in apparel design and development.

When she was born in 1993 in Thailand, the odds weren’t in favor of Mee Chang someday graduating from college in the United States.

She is the eighth of 11 children born to Hmong parents, who had left Laos for a Thai refugee camp in the difficult aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Her odds improved at age 3 when her family moved to Wausau in central Wisconsin. However, the role of the female in a traditional Hmong family is in the home, there was little money for college and none of her seven older siblings — two tried — had earned a college degree.

Adding to those challenges, she learned English as a second language while growing up and described herself as a “timid” person when she came to UW-Stout. “It was tough getting out of my comfort zone at first,” she said.

Yet, through determination, an impressive work ethic, skill and with steady support from home and on campus, Chang proudly crossed the Johnson Fieldhouse stage Saturday, May 6, with a broad smile and a diploma — a Bachelor of Science degree in apparel design and development from University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Mee Chang“It was definitely very hard, but I made it work,” she said.

Having grown up with many family responsibilities, she came to UW-Stout well-grounded and that ultimately made the difference in her ability to overcome the obstacles she faced. “I’m a hard worker. It’s important to know what your priorities are. I knew what I needed to do to reach my goals,” Chang said. “My parents understood how important education is to me, but it’s still hard being the perfect daughter.”

Staying busy wasn’t a problem for Chang while at UW-Stout. She exhibited designs in the WEAR Fashion Show on campus, was involved in the Hmong Stout Student Organization, studied for a semester in Japan and volunteered at the Menomonie Boys & Girls Club.

She also worked in the office at ASPIRE-Student Support Services and at Walmart in Menomonie, the latter from 20 to 25 hours a week to help make ends meet. Buying fabric and materials for apparel projects was expensive, she said.

Starting her career in New York

Excited as she is to have her degree and to set an example for her younger siblings and other Hmong students, Chang has even bigger plans for her future.

Beginning June 12, she will start a full-time internship on Seventh Avenue in New York — one of the fashion centers of the world — at the apparel company Csco, also known as Cherry Stix. Csco designs clothing for TJ Maxx and Rue 21. The position could turn into a full-time job.

“To leave home and go to the big city is nerve-wracking but exciting at the same time,” she said.

Her long-range goal is to create her own clothing brand, with Hmong cultural influences, and open her own store. She would like to develop international connections and get fabric from Thailand, where one of her sisters still lives, and Laos and return some of the profits to those suppliers, a fair trade approach.

As part of that goal, she is interested in going into the Peace Corps. She has a specialization in international studies with her degree.

Her senior design collection blended American and Hmong traditions. “A lot of embroidery is sourced in Thailand and from the Hmong. I get a lot of inspiration from my culture,” Chang said. “I would like to educate the world about who the Hmong people are, get that message out there, through the clothes and let others know what we’ve done as a people.”

The clothing Mee Chang designed for her senior collection at UW-Stout blends American and Hmong traditions.

Respect from her professors

Chang said UW-Stout and the apparel design and development program have provided a well-rounded education and prepared her for a career in the industry. She chose UW-Stout in part because it was less expensive than many other schools and the opportunities for one-on-one interaction with professors.

“She has grown and matured as a garment professional over the four years I have known her,” said Associate Dean Gindy Neidermyer, the apparel program director. “She started off with quiet resolution and soon developed into a highly engaged, well-respected student and classmate who consistently demonstrated that being true to yourself is key to success. Ms. Chang’s passion to demonstrate cultural awareness in her products is inspiring and brings about a new level of global awareness for products in the garment industry.”

In November, she will exhibit her UW-Stout senior designs in an annual Hmong fashion show in Minneapolis, Fresh Traditions.

Chang was part of the Honors College at UW-Stout, taking special courses and working on an Honors Contract apparel project. Her Honors College adviser, Associate Professor Meriem Chida, was impressed with her integrity, work ethic and creative talent. Chida taught Chang in three classes.

“In every class she rose to the top. She is dedicated to excellence in every task she tackles and every project,” Chida said. “She pushes herself to achieve more, to learn more and I never heard her complain about work. She is a testament to the caliber of the apparel design and development program as well as of the quality of the students we attract here at UW-Stout.

“I am excited and happy she is graduating but will surely miss seeing her in my classes,” Chida said.

When she heads to New York, Chang will take with her one of the lessons she learned from Chida and a thought that will guide her for years to come. “Every person contributes, and everyone plays a role somewhere in today’s big world,” she said.



Middle Photo: Mee Chang

Bottom Photo: The clothing Mee Chang designed for her senior collection at UW-Stout blends American and Hmong traditions.