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A humble standout: Adversity hasn’t held back Denfeld graduate Kong Xiong

Kong Xiong jokes with fellow Denfeld student Katherine Skwira-Brown about the big photo of his face that was taken for the "Let's Shave Kong's Head" fundraiser for a family whose home burned down. The effort raised about $1,300. Xiong and Skwira-Brown were preparing the commons area at the school for a student fine arts show. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Kong Xiong, a Denfeld High School senior, moves chairs to clear the floor in the commons area at the school in preparation for the recent Denfeld Fine Arts Night. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Denfeld senior Kong Xiong (right) works with fellow students to prepare the commons area at the school for the Denfeld Fine Arts Night recently. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 3

By many accounts, Kong James Xiong is one of the most well-known and well-liked students at Denfeld High School.

Just this year, he was involved in more than a dozen extracurricular activities ranging from Key Club to varsity tennis, he tutored other kids after school and was named homecoming king.

Despite that, Kong, who graduates Thursday with Denfeld's Class of 2017 and will attend Carleton College on a full scholarship next fall, is humble and approachable, said Denfeld English teacher Michele Helbacka.

"He learned that by being one of many children," she said. "He doesn't need to stand out from others."

Kong is one of 19 children who range in age from 7 to 32 — six of whom are half-siblings. His Hmong-American family immigrated to the United States in 1989. Kong was sandwiched between older brothers and sisters who were "too cool" to hang out with and younger siblings who needed more attention from his parents than he did, he said. That taught him to seek out school activities for the "spice of life," but also a tremendous amount of humility.

"I remember my sister exclaiming about my ACT score and how I did not tell the family about it weeks after I had gotten my result," he said, revealing his high score to a reporter only after prodding. "I dislike bragging or mentioning any of my achievements."

In the Hmong culture, he said, veneration of family, and the importance of caring for the entire family unit is emphasized. Individualism is not as important, he said.

Denfeld's Kong Xiong with his mother Blia Moua Xiong (left), father Wakoua Xiong and sister Selena Xiong. (Clint Austin / DNT)

Kong's father, Wakoua Xiong, was a soldier for the CIA in what is typically called the "secret war" in Laos during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. He met Kong's mother, Blia Moua Xiong, in a Thai refugee camp. The family immigrated to the U.S. because after the war they were no longer welcome in their country, Wakoua Xiong said.

Money was scarce in such a large family, Kong said, first understanding just how scarce by standing in the lunch line at Superior's Northern Lights Elementary School. He had heard his mother tell his sister at home that she had been eating too much at school. When he saw the negative balance on his lunch account, "I realized I was also eating too much at school," he said.

When he was younger, his family went to the Damiano Center for books, toys and clothes. As a junior in high school, he helped serve meals there as a volunteer.

"I thought, 'I remember this place,' " he said. "My family came here to get some help, and now I am coming back to help others.'"

Kong said he doesn't let the circumstances of life dictate his happiness.

"I'm a go-with-the-flow kind of guy," he said. "If it's bad, I let it be bad and try to fix it for another time. Any time there is a rock in the river, I can move around it without having too much worry."

Kong has never been vocal about the adversity in his life, Helbacka said.

"A lot of young people who have challenging circumstances tend to focus on them and make themselves victims," she said. "He's never been that way. 'It is what it is, I am who I am,' is his attitude."

Because of that he's "magnetic" to other students, she said.

"He accepts people wholeheartedly and with open arms," she said. "It's been great for our school."

Kong, whose favorite subject is history, plans to study physics in college, with a goal of becoming a researcher. Physics teacher Kevin Michalicek said he could always count on Kong to ask "a half-dozen questions at least," when he'd try to liven up discussion with "theoretical stuff like black holes."

"He wants to learn and understand and do whatever it takes to understand," Michalicek said.

Ethan Fisher has taught hundreds of kids in his 22 years as a history and government teacher. He puts Kong in a small group of high school students who've come before him who are not only smart, but also have common sense and a strong moral compass.

"When they open their mouth, they have thought already about what they are going to say and it's not a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "There is a very worldly perspective there."

He's joked to Kong in his honors government class about teaching it himself.

"It's just his eloquence," Fisher said.

Wakoua Xiong and Kong's mother, Blia Moua Xiong — who would ensure Kong made it to Denfeld for 5 a.m. speech and debate meet departures — support him 100 percent, Wakoua said, translated by eldest son Lee Xiong. They are happy he earned a scholarship, Wakoua said, and think his future is "bright with opportunity."

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