CAPAL Intern Spotlight Mary Thao ’19


Mary Thao is a rising senior at Marquette University majoring in Cognitive Science. As a first-generation, Hmong American college student, she has worked as a student laboratory research assistant in the Department for Clinical Laboratory Science (CLS) and as a program assistant for Marquette’s Center for Community Center (CCS). With a wide range of interests from her past experiences, she strives to become more holistic and well-rounded with professional aspirations in Public/Global Health, bioethics, and social justice. This summer, Mary interned at the USDA Foreign Agricultural Services – Office of Capacity Building and Development (OCBD) in the Development of Resources and Disaster Assistance (DRDA) division.

Why is public service important to you?

I have heard numerous statements blame “the system” or “society” for oppression, corruption, inequality, racism, elitism, etc…The list continues endlessly to a point where “the system/society” almost appears as an opposing person who has become the scapegoat of these disastrous dilemmas. Yet, we all are a part of the “system,” so through public service, I hope to take a step further in my role that may have perpetuated ill will if I didn’t do anything. I hope to represent the unheard voices and bridge the socially constructed gap between various mindsets. Public service is vital for me because it sets the backbone for “the system,” which I believe has its ebbs and flows but can still veer towards a side of optimism and goodwill for all. By being an active, conscientious citizen who can capture the realities and perspectives of many people, I hope to collaborate with other eager peers in ensuring the equality and equity of everyone. Only through this can the plethora of roles within public service be most effective and efficient.

How has your focus on AANHPI issues changed or developed through interning at CAPAL?

Throughout my entire life, I have always felt like the middleman that was never truly spoken about unless my identity represented the majority in a room or the “topic of the day.” With this, Ihave grown up always championing myself as a Hmong American who fought for issues pertinent specifically for my culture. Through CAPAL, I am able to understand and analyze my identity as an Asian American within society to comprehend the power of collaboration. Just from these few weeks of coming to DC, I am already immersed in an environment of like-minded people who hold an awareness that I do not have. Some understand the nature of today’s politics. Others know the untold history of Asian Americans. And there’s those who are simply more cognizant on life (aka more “woke”). In summary, I have begun to perceive the importance of working together with people whose identities are not exactly like mine, so that we all can all attain our goals. With this, I strive to become more well-rounded while learning about a bunch of different issues and solutions.

What do you think you can bring back to your community from your internship and being a part of CAPAL?

As a first-generation, Hmong American woman, I want to bring back my experiences to my community whether it is my family, my school, the city of Milwaukee, or even those who are not directly affiliated with me. I hold some privileges that allow me the possibility in joining my amazing CAPAL cohort in the bustling world of Washington DC. Unfortunately, such a unique reality cannot apply for everyone, so the knowledge I gain from this eye-opening experience will be used as a narrative of exploration. I hope that my experiences show my community another perspective of delving into unknown fields within unknown places. While interning at the USDA Foreign Agricultural Services, listening to various experts at the Washington Leadership Program, and discussing professional yet also personal topics among my peers, I hope to hone my skills about knowledge attainment, cultural competency, and political advocacy to apply these within my community. Yet I also want to introduce my story to those in DC and those who don’t know me, so that these groups can be a part of my community too. Through storytelling and exchanging knowledge, I hope to influence others to follow their curiosities, whether that be specifically applying for CAPAL or generally fulfilling their life aspirations without restraint.

What is something that people usually don’t expect or know about you? 

Contrary to my quiet perhaps even timid demeanor, I love public speaking – but only if I am super prepared!

What are you most excited to do in Washington DC this summer?

I love picking people’s brains! DC is a great place to meet different people from all parts of the country, so I hope to meet new people and visit new places. During these adventures, I hope to learn more about their interests, what motivations drive them into doing what they do, and how they feel about super deep, ambiguous life topics. A sense of uninhibited vulnerability always leads to the greatest of friendships!


Meet all of our CAPAL Scholars & Interns here.

 Sukhanjot (Sukhi) Kaur is a rising senior at the University of Nevada, Reno majoring in Human Development and Family Studies with a minor in Accounting. She is currently deciding between a master’s in higher education and political science, but hopes to go on to work for a nonprofit focusing on women and education after graduation. Sukhi served as the Service Officer for Kappa Delta Chi Sorority, Inc. the past year. She was greatly exposed to Sikh American representation through her involvement in with the Sikh community in Nevada and having grown up in Punjab until early childhood. Sukhi hopes to promote Sikh American leadership with her commitments and organize more involvement in the Sikh American youth in her community.