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DU Graduate Blazes a Trail for Family, Community

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Emma Atkinson

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DU graduate Mi Nai San.

Everything that Mi Nai San does, she does for her family and her community.

She says that she wants to set an example for them, to be a trailblazer in her conservative Muslim neighborhood.

“All the trials and tribulations I went through—I learned from it so I can pass it on to my younger sisters,” Mi Nai San says. “And they really do inspire me a lot, to become a better person and to become a beacon in the community.”

“Trials and tribulations” is an apt way to describe the experiences that have led to Mi Nai San’s graduation from the University of Denver with a dual major in criminology and political science.

The child of Burmese Muslims, Mi Nai San was born in a Thai refugee camp after her family fled their country as religious refugees. Her family came to the U.S. when she was young, thanks to sponsorship from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and originally settled in California before moving to Colorado, where Mi Nai San’s uncle lived at the time, in 2008.

Her father has worked the same job at a meatpacking plant since coming to Colorado, something that Mi Nai San says inspired her tireless work ethic.

“I started working when I was 15. It's just been grinding, like, all the time,” she says. “It definitely shows, with two degrees and finishing in two and a half years; I think it’s a big accomplishment.”

That work ethic is part of what Mi Nai San says she believes makes her stand out in her community.

“In my community, the majority of the people, they get married young and have kids; they drop out, don't finish even their high school diploma,” she says. “I'm like kind of a trailblazer, just because I'm going against so many cultural norms as well as religious norms, too. So, I’m just showing [my sisters] that our parents came to America for a reason, for all these opportunities.”

Mi Nai San took those opportunities and ran with them, finishing high school in Aurora and applying to colleges and universities across the country. She ended up staying close to home by choosing DU.

“The convenience of being [away] from home, but also close enough to visit every weekend or so gave me the perfect space to be my own person, but also be there for my family and my sisters when they need it,” she says. “And especially with the [financial aid], too, and getting a world-class education.”

Coming into her first year at DU, Mi Nai San wanted to solely study political science, but one class and one professor, in particular, changed her mind—and her next two and a half years.

Jeffrey Lin is one of the top, best professors in his field, with the work he's doing at correctional facilities, and the amount of work he's put into that just inspires me a lot,” she reflects.

Lin teaches Intro to Criminology, which is where Mi Nai San says her interest in the field was sparked. She also speaks highly of professor Scott Phillips. He teaches a travel course that takes students to Alabama to learn about the death penalty—an area that Mi Nai San says she was eager to learn about. She remembers the trip fondly, calling Phillips a father figure.

The number of students on the trip was small, so they quickly became a tight-knit group. Mi Nai San credits DU’s small class sizes, in general, and the strength of the criminology program with helping her stay on track and get the best education possible.

“We’re regarded as ‘the Harvard of the West,’” she says, “And I definitely see why they say that, because of who we’re learning from—the professors, the areas of study they're studying. And essentially, everybody in the criminology department are trailblazers, just because it's a new and emerging field.”

Mi Nai San’s time at DU has also included an internship at the Colorado State Capitol with Rep. Iman Jodeh of State House District 41.

“She's making headway for people of our kind, especially in our religion, because people confuse religion with culture,” she says. “And in many cultures, women aren't supposed to hold high positions or speak out and be outspoken, but she's out here doing all that, and she's doing stuff for her own community, her Muslim community.”

Mi Nai San and her colleagues participating in World Hijab Day at the Colorado State Capitol.
Mi Nai San and her colleagues participating in World Hijab Day at the Colorado State Capitol.

And Mi Nai San is setting out to make change of her own. She'll take a few years off following graduation and then plans to apply to law school and study immigration law, preferably in an immigration hotspot like Texas.

“Immigration is something that holds a place near and dear in my heart, not only because of my own experiences, but I also think that my purpose in this life and on this Earth is to give back and help my people,” she reflected in a recent essay. “Who are my people? They are the immigrants of the United States who are struggling to gain legal status in the U.S.”

Above all, Mi Nai San says her time at DU—Lin’s class, especially—has inspired her to approach everything she does with commitment and positive energy.

She calls Lin loud and energetic, even at the outset of an 8 a.m. class.

“That passion is something I want,” Mi Nai San says. “And I hope to embody that for the rest of my life, honestly, because life isn’t worth living if you're not passionate about something. Are you really living if you're not really passionate about change, or what you're doing day to day? If you're not making change, what are you doing on Earth?”