Creating his way to success: Kyaw is WHS Senior Student of Excellence for Art

WORTHINGTON -- Attendees at Friday night's Worthington High School (WHS) commencement ceremony witnessed dozens of bright young people joyfully accepting their diplomas.


WORTHINGTON - Attendees at Friday night’s Worthington High School (WHS) commencement ceremony witnessed dozens of bright young people joyfully accepting their diplomas.


Among them was Than Than Kyaw, whose broad smile and dimpled face shone as he joined his fellow senior WHS Concert Choir members in singing two numbers during the program.


On May 17, Kyaw was one of 12 members of the WHS Class of 2017 named as a senior departmental student of excellence - in his case, for art - at the school’s annual academic awards recognition event.



But the path Kyaw traveled to gain that honor is singular.


Kyaw first came to the United States on Sept. 2, 2010. He spent the first 12 years of his life in Thailand’s Nupho Refugee Camp, where he was born.  


The youngest of five children, Kyaw’s family lived in Roseville for one year.


“I went to sixth grade there,” said Kyaw. “I walked in the school and looked for the number ‘6,’” he recalled, not realizing there was a process for registration. “They sent me to the office.”



The following year, Kyaw and his mother, Peh Poe, moved to Worthington and Kyaw enrolled at Worthington Middle School, where he was a designated ESL student. He vividly remembers the students who were kind and helped orient him to the school.


“They would talk to me at lunch, but I couldn’t say much back to them,” he said.


In Thailand, Kyaw attended school and was instructed to some degree in four different languages - Thai, Karen, Burmese and English. Today, he primarily speaks Karen in his home and English elsewhere.


Kyaw continued as an ESL student when he continued on to WHS, and perhaps in part due to his linguistic challenges he gravitated to art and the performing arts.



“I really like art,” he said, grinning.


Between his ESL class periods and his music participation (Kyaw is a four-year member of the WHS choirs and was in the WHS Trojan Marching Band’s color guard), he had scant spare time for other electives, but art nevertheless beckoned him.


“I had him first as an AOK Club student,” said Gail Holinka, chair of the WHS art department. “He couldn’t fit art classes into his schedule, but he would come in after school and I gave him some supplies so he could create.”


That arrangement continued throughout Kyaw’s WHS career, and he excelled in whatever he tried.


“He competed in the digital photography contest and took first place in the visual elements category,” Holinka noted, “and in the MSHSL art contest he received a superior for a mixed media piece.”


Finally, during his senior year, Kyaw was able to officially register for an independent study art class and participate in an SVS (student volunteer service) position with Holinka.


“He recently created a ceramic mask that he said was his favorite project,” observed Holinka, adding that Kyaw’s design was chosen to grace the 2016 WHS Homecoming T-shirt last fall. “And I was able to let him teach a small lesson to an introductory art class, and the kids loved him.


“Than Than thrives in everything he does, and he loves to learn new things.”


Kyaw grasped every art-related opportunity that came his way, including serving on the Worthington Public Arts Commission, volunteering with the kids’ arts activities at Worthington Windsurfing Regattas, assisting with the wall-sized mural that brightens the Center for Active Living’s courtyard and helping professional artists install the bridge sculpture commemorating the Crailsheim/Worthington sister city relationship at Chautauqua Park.


“I was surprised to get the award,” said Kyaw of his student of excellence designation. “But it’s all about passion.”


Kyaw’s determination and willingness to tackle new challenges also paid off for him in other arenas. He prepared and performed vocal solos for the MSHSL solo/ensemble contest in each of the past three years, earning superior ratings each time.


As a junior, he auditioned for All State Choir - and was accepted. He thus participated in the 2016-17 Minnesota All State Men’s Choir and said he learned a great deal and “made a lot of friends” in the process. At the May 8 WHS spring choir concert, Kyaw received the National School Choral Award for his efforts.


Since his freshman year, Kyaw has been involved with the WHS musicals each winter. As a ninth grader, he showed up backstage at Memorial Auditorium to assist with the set crew, having been tipped off to the need for painters by Holinka.


“I walked in and said, ‘I am here to paint,’” grinned Kyaw. “I loved it; I can still see the images in my head from that first day.”


Kyaw progressed to on-stage roles in “Anything Goes,” “The Little Mermaid” and “South Pacific.” He assumed the role of Bloody Mary in the latter production and raised his natural baritone voice to a falsetto at director Eric Parrish’s request.


“I still don’t talk a lot at school because I need to develop more confidence about speaking English,” Kyaw admitted. “When I am on stage, I am speaking lines that are given to me - but those are not really my words.”


Kyaw plans to remain in Worthington to attend Minnesota West Community and Technical College during the next two years, aiming to take as many art and theater classes as possible while also conquering his general studies.


Inspired by Holinka, whom he views as a mentor, Kyaw has entertained the idea of becoming an art teacher but says he wants to explore more options before pursuing a definitive career.


Revealing that his name in Karen means “more than millions,” this one-in-a-million graduate has more than earned Holinka’s wholehearted endorsement.


“He’s a multi-talented, amazing young man,” said Holinka.


Kyaw modestly shrugs even as he shares his winning outlook on life.


“I just go after it,” he smiled. “I’m willing to try things, and I just keep doing what I love to do, what makes me happy - I’ve got this one life, and I have to explore and create.


“I’m very glad to be here.”


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