Being the change he wants to see

Cheng Leng Xiong was awarded the HOBY Outstanding Youth Award at Bethel University April 6. (Linda Baumeister/Review)

North’s Cheng Leng Xiong receives award for volunteerism

Though this North High School senior often tries to stay out of the spotlight, his efforts to create change in his community haven’t gone unnoticed.

Cheng Leng Xiong was recognized by the Minnesota Hugh O’Brian Youth (HOBY) leadership program for his outstanding record of volunteerism and sense of social responsibility. He was presented with the HOBY Outstanding Youth Award at Minnesota’s fourth annual HOBY Cheers Dinner at Bethel University earlier this month.

HOBY is an all-volunteer organization that focuses on celebrating youth leaders and helping them grow, says HOBY Minnesota vice president Donna Herbel. The organization, which has programs across the U.S. to serve local and international high school students, provides leadership seminars to students in their home states as well as an international student leadership event.

Though Xiong has not participated in HOBY programs, Herbel said the organization seeks to recognize students who go above and beyond to serve their communities whether they are involved in HOBY or not. Herbel said Xiong was chosen to receive the HOBY Outstanding Youth Award for many reasons, including the fact that he “assertively steps forward to implement change.”

A “remarkable resource”

Xiong has served two years on the Youth Advisory Council for the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC), and has been involved in a plethora of other organizations and volunteer activities including serving on the Youth Leadership Council in District 622, on North’s Student Council, on Camp Fire USA’s National Youth Advisory Cabinet, and as a member of the National Honor Society, just to name a few. Xiong has also participated in the Pay It Forward volunteering organization, raised money for Relay for Life and the adaptive swimming program, and serves as a cultural liaison for the Hmong community in many ways.

Xiong was nominated for the award by Justin VerMeer, youth engagement coordinator for the NYLC, and VerMeer said though he works with youth from all over the country, Xiong’s name immediately came to mind when he thought about making a nomination.

Xiong is a “remarkable resource” for anyone he works with, VerMeer said, and is always asking how he can best serve others. Despite his many achievements, VerMeer says Xiong is humble and reluctant to take credit for all his notable work.

“He is not of the variety that engages in an act of service hoping to be observed, he would rather he not be noticed, but when, invariably he is seen he playfully passes the credit along to someone else,” VerMeer said in his nomination letter for Xiong. “Truly he wants to serve to be of benefit, not for the satisfaction or the attention.”

An “agent of change”

Xiong immigrated to the U.S. from Thailand in 2005, and said it was tough readjusting to the new language and culture in Minnesota.

“My life changed a lot,” he said of the transition. “I felt born again.”

First attending school in St. Paul, Xiong spoke no English, and when he made the transition to Skyview Middle School in Oakdale for seventh grade Xiong said he still felt extremely lonely in his new environment.

But once at Skyview, Xiong said his English began to improve, and by the time he started his freshman year at North High School he was eager to get more involved in his community. He joined the Youth Advisory Council consisting of members from North, Tartan and Mahtomedi high schools.

Angelica Torralba-Olague, youth programs coordinator for School District 622 community education who coordinates the local Youth Leadership Council, said Xiong has more than succeeded in making meaningful changes in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district.

“He is just an agent of change,” Torralba-Olague said.

She explained that students from the Youth Leadership Council attend a national leadership training conference each year, and that after one conference Xiong and a group of other members on the council were so inspired by what they learned that they came back to the district and began planning a major project.

Project SWAG -- which stands for “students working on the achievement gap” -- was developed by Xiong and other Youth Leadership Council members to address the achievement gap in District 622 schools. The student-led program used data regarding reading and math scores in the district to create an effective strategy in which high school students mentor children in lower grades.

The program officially launched on Martin Luther King Day in 2012 at Oakdale and Richardson elementary schools, and Torralba-Olague noted the program has been so successful that it has been expanded to Webster Elementary.

Torralba-Olague said Cheng was instrumental in recruiting high school mentors for the program, and that it has been a joy to see how well the younger students have responded to it.

“Our community is changing so much, so to have students see a mentor in their class that reflects who they are says a lot,” Torralba-Olague said.

Xiong said he’s proud of what Project Swag has been able to accomplish, and that he wishes there would have been a similar program when he first arrived in the U.S. because he believes it would have been able to help students like him - who may be struggling to learn a new language or increase their reading, writing and math abilities.

“I see myself in those kids,” Xiong added. “I also learn from them, too.”

A bright future

Xiong plans to attend St. Cloud State University next fall, but says he believes his work in District 622 isn’t done yet. He hopes to start a project for kids in the district to help them find “a place where they belong,” whether that’s in a school sport, club or other activity.

Xiong said he believes it’s important that young students find an activity that they love because it will ultimately help them be more successful in life and dissuade them from heading down a wrong path. He added that he’s grateful for Torralba-Olague, VerMeer, his parents and all the other people who have helped him during his own journey.

Ultimately, Xiong said he plans to enter into the medical field -- something that Torralba-Olague said would be a fitting career choice for someone so passionate about helping others. His goal is to become a family physician and offer free care to needy and homeless people around the world.

“I just know he’s going to be very successful in whatever he chooses to do,” Torralba-Olague added.

For more information on the HOBY organization or how to get involved, visit

Alex Holmquist can be reached at or 651-748-7822.

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