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Phillips Scholar focuses on public health

By Bradley West '13
September 17, 2012

Usually when students want to spend a summer volunteering for a good cause, they find established nonprofit organizations with projects that they believe in.

But Serena Xiong '13 took a slightly different route. As one of this summer's Phillips Scholars, Xiong was responsible for designing, implementing, and running a service project of her own. She created the "Hmong and Latino Radon Education Project" in order to provide public health education to populations lacking in such services.

Xiong was one of six college students in Minnesota to be named a Phillips Scholar for 2011–13. The scholarship, which is offered by the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation, provides students who dedicate their time and talent to community service with $16,400 toward college tuition, a summer stipend, and project resource funding. 

Xiong's project focused on her hometown of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, which has tested positive for high rates of exposure to radon, a chemical element that's the second most frequent cause of lung cancer in the United States (after tobacco smoke). Although the community is at risk for exposure to this dangerous chemical, the Latino and Hmong residents remain underserved in public health education and services to mitigate these problems. So Xiong began to design a public health curriculum geared toward the Hmong and Latino residents of Brooklyn Center.

As the creator and manager of this education initiative, Xiong found herself busy with a diverse array of tasks throughout the summer.

Serena Xiong '13 (standing) leads a radon education class that she designed as part of her Phillips Scholar project.

"Some days I would be meeting with my project collaborators and some days I would be at a local farmers' market trying to recruit Hmong and Latino participants for the radon education classes," she explains. "Other tasks included creating and translating radon presentations into Hmong and Spanish, writing letters and making phone calls to local grocery markets for food donations, and training Hmong- and Spanish-speaking volunteers in radon education."

Of course, starting a public health initiative from scratch posed some significant challenges for Xiong. At her first Spanish-language radon education class, for example, only one of the eight confirmed homeowners actually attended.

"I felt so defeated at that moment, but then the only homeowner who showed up walked over to me after class," Xiong says. "She told me that she'd like to offer her help in recruiting more people to come to the next class. Without hesitation I gave her my fliers, postcards, the radon presentations, and radon test kits. At the next Spanish radon education class, she showed up with four other homeowners."

As Xiong began to overcome such challenges and learned how to adjust her project to fit the needs of the community, she realized how thrilling service work can be.

"This whole experience was both exciting and rewarding for me — exciting in the sense that I was doing something that was never done before, and rewarding in the sense that I was doing something that mattered to the Hmong and Latino communities," she says. "But what was most satisfying was hearing all my participants thank me at the end of the classes."

Having completed this summer's health initiative, Xiong will work with the Minnesota Department of Health next summer to create radon education pamphlets in Hmong and Spanish.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or