See—How He Rises
Story by: Michael Shaw, UW-Green Bay Staff Writer
See ViXai Thao is a morning person. Which is a good thing, since he’s usually at work from about seven ‘til ten.
“The actual workday doesn’t start until 7:20, but I like to come in early.” This is also good because while he’s not a farmer, he has quite a flock to attend to—nearly 500 middle school students at Washington Middle School in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
While the prospect of facing a classroom with 13-year-olds first thing in the morning might strike one as a daunting task, Thao takes it to the next level. As the school’s “Student Advocate” he could potentially interact with any of them—often during not ideal circumstances. School counseling has also come a long way from hallway pass compliance, playing “hooky”, or playground fights. Mental health, homelessness, and drug abuse are just a few of the complex problems he might grapple with on any given day. Luckily, he is well prepared.
Thao explains, “I’m a trained, licensed school social worker. His time and energy are directed almost solely toward the welfare of the students. He describes his typical responsibilities as that of a crew member on a vast ship transporting hundreds of adolescents productively and safely through their day. Often, it’s smooth sailing.
Other days? Thao has become an expert at taking the temperature of a school day—and when the volatile mix of academics and adolescents starts to bubble over, “You can feel the emotional intensity. Then I would tell the teachers, ‘I’m waiting’…” For what he could never be sure.
“There’s rarely a boring day. Or the same day twice.” It takes a unique blend of empathy, instinct, and professionalism to cope with each day’s new challenge. And Thao looks forward to every day.
“I love it. It comes naturally to me.”
What didn’t come easily for Thao was the educational path that led him to this job he loves because it wasn’t his first choice. His credentials are impressive: License School Social Worker/Counselor with a master’s degree in social work and a bachelor’s of science in human development—all from UW-Green Bay. But originally, and true to his nurturing spirit, Thao had always aspired to help people, but as a nurse.
And even beyond his career choice, it does seem that greater forces would someday bring him to Washington Middle School. Thao grew up and attended high school in Manitowoc. His parents, Hmong refugees, arrived in Manitowoc in 1993 and have never left. Even though he attended Manitowoc public schools, he had no intention of going into education. Nursing was the career Thao envisioned for himself—a career path than ran in the family. Both of his sisters and a cousin are nurses.
Thao was determined to get an early start. “My junior and senior year was all about getting ready for college and a nursing career.” Today, he would not counsel others to take the same approach. “If I could have given myself advice I would say ‘just enjoy your high school experience.’”
Especially if your post-high-school plans get off to a rocky start. “I applied to four different nursing programs, but didn’t get accepted.”
But ironically, his struggles to get into nursing school revealed a new career path—counseling. “When I was getting ready to become a nurse and taking all my classes, all my friends told me I needed to go into education.” Thao became the unofficial academic advisor among his friends. “They told me, you should work in education. That’s where you belong.”
He took their sage advice. “I sucked it up and said, ‘Fine, I’ll give it a try.”
But it was only after completing his undergraduate degree in human and an internship at UW-Green Bay that Thao would admit to himself that “I did like education.” But as a counselor.
And while it was coursework that swayed Thao toward education, his field experiences working in a juvenile detention center and homeless shelter “exposed me to the true social work side of things.”
Even his “student counseling” experience at Chilton High School, which has an enrollment of 382 students, was revelatory. “I was very surprised,” Thao recalled. “I had a vision going in that the students would all come from farming families and would be coming to school on tractors.”
Once again expectation differed from reality. “They were very welcoming and the community itself was a lot of fun to work in because it was a very close-knit community.”
Career trajectory set. All that was left was to find a job that fit. During his last semester in graduate school, Thao applied to over 40 positions. “Everything from the hospital, clinical settings, public health services. Primarily because there were few social work opportunities in school settings.”
Thao also applied to 11 different school districts and interviewed at four of them, including Manitowoc. And Manitowoc offered him a position—his dream job in his hometown. Or as he puts it, “I got to Washington Middle School—and I’m not going to lie—by luck.” And if that includes determination, perseverance, and a deep caring for others‚ we should all be that lucky.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Working with people. I never know what to expect. To know I’m going to be learning something new.
What’s the last lesson life taught you?
Positivity. Right now the most important thing is you. That’s my lesson for today. Focusing on myself and letting others know it’s OK to give yourself the attention that others aren’t giving you.
How has education opened doors?
I had personally always wanted to go beyond my bachelor’s degree. My dream and my goal were to have a master’s. My graduate studies have given me more opportunities than I know what to do with. I’ve also gained more opportunities to join research efforts involving mental health and the Hmong community.
What’s education’s biggest challenge?
We all work with students regardless of what our roles are. Professionally, I get down to the kid’s level mentally and emotionally. I teach these lessons in a way that the kids will understand and is age-appropriate for them.
At the college level, individuals who are not truly engaged with students daily need to understand students’ needs and how to provide those services. It never hurts to be friendly! And it shouldn’t be painful to answer questions simply and clearly. It’s like going to the professionals, but still not understanding what they’re talking about.
At UW-Green Bay, we believe that every person has the power to Rise. No matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you want to be. We invite you to read more Rise Stories about people from all walks of life who are blazing a brighter future for our region.