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Editor's note: Marked with tattoos and scars from bullet wounds, Sophorn Khoun doesn't look like the average health care worker. As a child running with a Southeast Asian gang in Salt Lake City's poorest neighborhoods, he couldn't fathom that one day he'd be working to heal others.
But when Sophorn was 20, he extricated himself from gang life and built a new one for himself in Rochester, Minnesota. In 2014, he was given an opportunity to pursue a path toward helping people when he received a position at Mayo Clinic. The job introduced him to individuals, ideas and opportunities that didn't exist in his previous life.
In December 2018, Sophorn's hope to help people heal took another step forward when he received his advanced nursing assistant certificate from Rochester Community and Technical College through the Bridges to Healthcare Program. The program is a collaboration among Mayo Clinic, Rochester Community and Technical College, Workforce Development and Hawthorne Education Center. In this story, Sophorn shares how he left the gang life to pursue a career in health care.
By Sophorn Khoun
I grew up during the 1990s and lived in the projects of the inner city of West Valley City, Utah. Our neighbors were other Cambodians, Vietnamese and Laotians who'd migrated after wars. I was exposed to gangs growing up. At that moment, it was cool. But more than that, I was more inspired by the love, loyalty and unity within the neighborhood. We had so much love and loyalty and didn't know how to project it in the most efficient way. We integrated it into street philosophy. We had no guidance, like a serpent with no head.
Gangs really didn't guide me in the right direction. I was young, and it is nothing to be proud of. When I was 16, on Sept. 11, 2000, I got shot four times during a gang shootout at a nearby pool hall. I lost a lot of blood. I broke a rib and, fortunately, it didn't puncture my lung. I got one in the neck. It was a skid. The one in the arm went right through. The one in my leg — luckily my wallet was there — hit the wallet and barely nicked me. I was in the hospital for two to three weeks.
Shootouts and shootings weren't new to me. Every day where I lived, I witnessed it. Drug dealing, prostitution, the gang life, the shooting and the domestic violence in the neighborhood — I saw all of that. I was in jail for 18 months, and when I came out, I started to see friends and cousins disappearing. They were either dead or in jail. I talked to my dad and said, "I can't do this." I couldn't be around that type of energy anymore. I needed find my way out.
My sister was living in Minnesota. She was married, and I asked my dad if I could come out here. I moved to Rochester in 2004 when I was 20.
When I first came here, the city was small. It wasn't like the inner city. I found it very quiet and mellow. I could find peace. I didn't have to worry about anybody trying to kill me. I really wanted to start my life here.
I'd dropped out of high school when I was 18. But when I moved here, I didn't think of continuing school. I worked 9 to 5. I was very comfortable. I didn't see myself going back to school. I thought it was too late. But later on, I had kids. I bought a home and had a family, and started to see bigger things in life. I saw that I could still make a difference. I sensed the opportunity was there for me. Now all I had to do was make that move. So I wrote it down and followed through. At the end of the day, my motivation was my children. I do this for them.
In Utah, I didn't know you could leave the neighborhood. I didn't know you could go skiing. I didn't know about Zion Canyon or anything outside the neighborhood. No one was talking about college or high-paying jobs. It was just bandanas, guns and gangs. That was the life I wanted. The lack of options we endured had us feeling caged and very limited from the outside.
In 2014, with four kids who are now between 8 and 12 years old, I started my GED. I was trying to improve my life and evolve. In 2014, I also started working at Mayo in Environmental Services.
Mayo Clinic really gave me a chance. It opened many doors for me. I hadn't wanted to be a nurse or anything in the Nursing Department. I just wanted to do what I did. But in the hospital setting, lives were being saved. That's what I wanted to do. I'm not God, but the least I can do is take care of a patient.
There was so much opportunity to advance within Mayo. I was going to school at Hawthorne, and they gave me the option for the Bridges Program. It just fell into place. I could pursue the goal I wanted while I worked at Mayo. After getting my GED, I went for the Certified Nurse Assistant Program and moved forward from that to the Advanced Nursing Assistant Program.
When I started at Mayo, there was a nurse on my floor. She always said hi and always would talk to me. She would listen unconditionally. She was so sweet. She didn't discriminate and wasn't afraid of me because of my tattoos. I've seen that a lot. People would walk away from me when I got into the elevator or hold onto their purses. I am a human being. I don't bite. But she accepted me, and there was that respect and love.
I was seeking self-growth and my first step started with the man in the mirror. Two years ago, as I was going through classes and work and everything, I found a spiritual practice and started meditating. That has been so beneficial in my daily life and helping me in being a better person. I integrate meditation into my daily life and believe it's gotten me through many barriers and helped connect me with my inner self. It's helping me find compassion for myself and others, and has really given me a new perspective on life.
One day, I hope to be an inspirational/motivational speaker. I was offered the opportunity to speak in a psychology class. I was humbly grateful for the opportunity to impact another individual with my experience. Perhaps they may reconsider their path. I believe everyone has a purpose in life, and I believe this is mine. I really want to help youth to step away from the streets — to tell them there is so much potential, to not throw your life away on the street life. You can start right here, right now. You can start giving back, and that's what I want to do. All of the time I was taking from society, I just want to give back. Just like the lotus flower, which symbolizes rising from the dark place as in a rebirth, we also are capable of rising from the mud and blooming out of the darkness. No mud, no lotus. Be the lotus.
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