Pamela Yang poses in her cultural attire during the third annual Miss Asian American Colorado finale event on July 11, 2010 at the Gates Concert Hall on the University of Denver campus. (Photo by Joe Nguyen/AsiaXpress.com)
Profile: Miss Asian American Colorado Pamela Yang
22-year-old Hmong American found role as 'mama bear' to program's other Miss AACO participants
By Joe Nguyen, AsiaXpress.com
Aug. 1, 2010
Pamela Yang answers her question during the third annual Miss Asian American Colorado finale event on July 11, 2010 at the Gates Concert Hall on the University of Denver campus.
For Pamela Yang, it was the feeling she felt as she was crowned the 2010 Miss Asian American Colorado on July 11 at the Gates Concert Hall on the University of Denver campus.
Linked hand-to-hand with 10 other young Asian-American women, Yang broke into a wide smile when her name was announced as the winner. Over the two months leading up to the finale event, the 22-year-old Hmong American participated in a series of workshops and service projects geared toward building leadership skills, while forging friendships with the other women.
"I felt really accomplished," she said. "I think the committee, even the girls and the judges – I hope the judges – saw the commitment I put into this program because I put my heart (into it). I made sure I went to every single workshop."
According to both organizers and participants, Yang often took the initiative from organizing an event with two speakers from the Susan G. Komen women's committee to talk about breast cancer to offering rides and setting up social events with the other women in the program.
"She was always our 'mama bear,'" said Vanessa Teck, one of the other participants in the 2010 program. "She was always willing to provide people with encouragement, advice and made sure that people had the opportunity to participate in everything."
That attitude certainly reflects well on her aspirations of becoming a teacher once she completes her graduate degree. And by winning the competition, Yang receives the opportunity to do her service project – creating a mentorship program for girls who come from struggling homes.
"I wasn't surprised when her name was announced during the finale because throughout the entire program she was a very active and passionate candidate," said Duacee Lor, Yang's big sister in the program and the 2008 Miss AACO. "She is well deserving of her title and I know that she will accomplish great projects through her reign."
I'm such a mother figure'
Yang was born in Santa Maria, Calif., a city located about 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles. At the age of 10, she and her family moved to Colorado and settled in the northwest suburbs of Denver. Growing up, teaching was not the career path she was interested in pursuing.
Pamela Yang is crowned the 2010 Miss Asian American Colorado during the third annual Miss Asian American Colorado finale event on July 11, 2010 at the Gates Concert Hall on the University of Denver campus.
"I wanted to be a singer," Yang said with laugh. "I thought I was going to be the next Britney Spears, but the Asian version."
Entertainment certainly seemed like a viable option. Through most of her teenage years, she performed cultural Hmong dances. Despite her – as she puts it – "suckiness" early on, she enjoyed the experience because of her parents' involvement.
"(My dad) would choose the music, he would make us practice, he would tell us when to go on break, when to come back and practice," Yang said. "He would give me constructive criticism – he would straight up tell me 'you suck, you better step it up.' ... And I loved that."
That demand to work hard and improve has helped craft her into who she is today, she said.
"That's probably why I'm such a mother figure – because of my dad because he's so much of a perfectionist and I get a lot of that," she said.
The oldest of five, Yang said she was the one who had to set an example for her younger siblings, helping create a foundation of responsibility and nurture. Three of her siblings – Phillip, 21, Kathleen, 21, and Kevin, 20 – are just a year apart from one another, while the youngest brother, Jet, is 6.
"I've always been this way," she said. "Being the oldest of five, I've always had to be a role model and a leader."
By the time she reached her senior year in high school, she began thinking about what to do about her future, but those around her had different ideas.
"Everybody was saying, 'You should be a teacher,'" she said. " ... They kept on telling me I was small and cute."
When she started at the University of Colorado Denver, she was not sure what she wanted to focus on. She toyed with the idea going into business and fashion – she still plans on starting a children's clothing line after she retires – but it was her baby brother, Jet, who gave her the most inspiration to become a teacher after she spent years helping take care of him.
"It was so great to see everything I learned in class happening in real life with my younger brother," she said. "I taught him how to read, I taught him how to write – I've been very involved with his education."
After graduating with a degree in elementary education, Yang returned to school to work on her master's in instruction and curriculum in linguistically diverse education.
Becoming a mentor
As the 2010 Miss AACO, Yang will have an opportunity to fulfill her service project in the coming year. Her plan of creating a mentorship program for girls who come from struggling homes stems from her experiences working as a substitute teacher for sixth graders.
"These girls were just disrespectful," she said. "They were just not nice at all and the first day that I went in substituting, the teacher had told me that seven girls were suspended for doing marijuana. ...
"These girls were getting into drugs, they were breaking laws, they were put in jail."
Pamela Yang poses in her cultural attire during the third annual Miss Asian American Colorado finale event on July 11, 2010 at the Gates Concert Hall on the University of Denver campus.
Yang tried to get the girls to work by separating them, she said, but they simply responded by giving her more attitude. So she took them aside, talked to them, and they shared with her their stories.
"I felt that they were comfortable to tell me that and I felt that they do look up to me because I'm young," she said. "That takes a lot of courage to tell somebody your life story.
"You should have heard some of the stories – I don't have a father, my mom's in jail – it was just really bad."
These stories urged her to find a way to help them, to help other girls like them. Her plan is to create a mentorship program with five workshops that focus on education, leadership, public speaking and safety – an outlet to help them get away from their less-than-ideal situations.
"They're really hanging out with the wrong girls and they're involved in the wrong activities," she said. "They're not really focused on their education."
Yang admitted that the program will be a difficult undertaking, but she hopes that the mentors will be committed to help make it a success.
"Some of these girls are two years behind," she said. "They've been held back. One of these girls, she's 13, but she's in sixth grade. She should have been in eighth grade by then."
'Character that stands out above most'
Yang stumbled onto the Miss AACO program while eating at an Asian restaurant with her boyfriend Zack. She saw a copy of Asian Avenue magazine featuring 2009 Miss AACO Erika Tanaka and decided to pick it up and read it.
"I read the article and I read about what the program was all about and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I can totally do this,'" she said.
Yang said she spent much of her college life focusing on school and placed the program on her back-burner. But once school ended, her time opened up and she decided to enter despite having some reservations.
"I loved that it was based around leadership, not solely on beauty – I'm totally going to do it," she said. "I did have my doubts. I was skeptical (but) I had a lot of support who said 'yeah, you should totally do it.'"
Her worries were erased after she began going to the different workshops and events. She said the program not only helped provide valuable lessons, but it introduced her to the wider community.
"I learned a lot about leadership and I learned so much about volunteering and putting yourself out there because before I did this program, I was about school and work," she said. "That was my priority, that was it. I didn't get involved in anything."
Yang said the one event that stood out for her was working at the Asian Pacific Development Center and working with ESL students. As a student studying linguistically diverse education, it was right up her alley.
"Everything was designed or was prepared to be meaningful," she said. "And every workshop or event, I took it as this is a part of the process in becoming a leader."
One of her projects was bringing speakers from the Susan G. Komen Foundation to speak to the young women about breast cancer awareness. She said the others didn't seem to much about the disease prior and immediately knew that "this was a hush-hush issue within the Asian-American community."
"During our small group project for the pink team, she took initiative by putting together most of the breast cancer (awareness) planning," Lor said. "She went above and beyond than what was expected of the project.
"She definitely has a character that stands out above most."
Yang took the initiative in other areas, as well, reaching out to the other young women in the program. She said she organized social gatherings before and after events. Organizers said she offered to pick the others up to take them to the different program events. On a photo, she said, fellow contestant Natalie Ta signed "mama bear," referring to her nurturing ways. It's a sentiment that many of the other women share.
"They call me like a mother figure, don't they?" she said. " ... I take it as a compliment."
Now that Yang has the crown, there's a greater amount of responsibility placed upon her shoulders. She has to make appearances at a number of upcoming Asian-American events as well as start planning for her service project while attending school. She said she knows she's now a role model for Asian-American girls and hopes they take one piece of advice from her.
"I really want them to go out there and get involved with the community while they're still young," she said.