KaZoua (Kuh-zoo-ah) is a third-grade student at College Preparatory Elementary (CPE) who was chosen by her teacher to take part in the Literacy Connections (LC) program. LC was initiated through the University of St. Thomas and partnered with CPE a little over a year ago.

St. Thomas student mentors meet with their student buddies twice a week in the school cafeteria, where they work together on English reading, writing and social skills. KaZoua and I were paired together at random last year. She was described by her teacher as “sweet, polite, friendly and quiet.” In time I have come to find all these traits to be true.

Originally from Laos, KaZoua is of Hmong descent. She stands almost four feet tall with long chocolate hair usually braided or tied into an exceptionally long ponytail. She greets me with a grin revealing her toothy smile and huge heart. She wears glittered jeans that stop inches above her ankles and accentuate the gold and silver bracelets covering each of her wrists.

Kazoua's hand

KaZoua loves to color flowers and butterflies.

Like the rest of the students at CPE, KaZoua wears a forest-green polo that often is tied in the back with a rubber band. The youthful energy she carries with her is contagious. From the moment I met her I knew we would become good friends.

Shy at first and knowing little English, KaZoua spoke softly with question in her tone and always sat an appropriate distance away from me. I tried asking her questions about her jewelry, about her friends and family, and questions about her day but nothing seemed to light a fire in her.

A month into our time working together KaZoua and I had a breakthrough. I had come up with an idea for KaZoua to create her own short story. Excited to show her the makeshift book I had constructed for her, I also was worried about the amount of work it entailed. To my surprise, she skipped up to me with a huge grin on her face, tapped me on the shoulder and said, half giggling, “My baby broder ess crazzzyy.”

Not only had she spoken to me first but she had come up with the perfect story line for her book. It took us a couple of weeks to complete her story but it turned out better than I could have imagined. She approached me every day with something to add or fix about her story.

KaZoua hard at work

KaZoua, hard at work.

More than a year later KaZoua’s English reading, writing and social skills have greatly improved. We have begun reading short chapter books, which is very exciting. We also have started a pen-pal system to practice writing skills and keep in touch over school breaks and summertime.

Recently, I’ve become curious  as to KaZoua’s perspective on LC and how she feels about having a student-mentor from St. Thomas.

When I asked her if she liked having a student-buddy, she responded excitedly, “Yes!” Then she paused for a moment before answering why: “I like to color, and read, and draw, and write and color!” I laughed a little because anyone who knows KaZoua knows she loves to color flowers and butterflies.

I also asked KaZoua if she minds leaving class to work together. She responded, “I wish we did this more. I want to get better.” She thought for a while and then added: “’Cause I want to read a lot. Because reading makes me smarter.” She struggled a bit when I asked her why it was important to be smart, but she came to the conclusion that “being smarter is better than not being smart.”

I smiled and told her that was a perfect answer.

UST mentors are excited to see what the rest of the semester brings. I’m sure it will bring nothing less than smiles.