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University of Wisconsin students push for program in Hmong-American studies

April 17, 2017 GMT

When Myxee Thao came to UW-Madison, she hoped to focus her undergraduate studies on the experiences of fellow Hmong-Americans.

But the sophomore from Wausau soon learned that the university offers only one consistent course exclusively focused on the ethnic group and its time in the United States. Some other classes had units on Hmong-Americans, but they touched on the group only briefly.

That spurred Thao to join with several other Hmong-American undergraduates, forming an organization that is pushing UW-Madison administrators to hire more faculty who study the ethnic group and launch a program through which students can earn a certificate in Hmong-American studies.

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They envision a program that focuses on “Hmong-Americans in America today,” Thao said, with courses on culture, history, educational policy and social welfare. Thao’s organization, the Hmong-American Studies Committee, also wants the university to open an on-campus Hmong cultural center, similar to a center for black students that is opening this semester.

It will be difficult to make the students’ idea a reality, though, as they are calling for UW-Madison to add faculty and advising positions at a time when state budget cuts have led departments around the university to slash jobs.

Greg Downey, associate dean for social sciences in UW-Madison’s College of Letters and Science, said the university has kept funding for its broader Asian-American studies program stable amid cuts elsewhere. But Downey said there are no plans to hire new faculty “in any particular specialty area.”

“These are tough choices in what are tough budget times for the university, but (the College of Letters & Science) is committed to helping (the Asian-American studies) program succeed in its current scope,” Downey said.

As to the request for a Hmong-American student center, UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said campus officials are “gathering more information,” but have not made any decisions.

Classes not enough, students say

Students can currently earn a certificate — UW’s version of an undergraduate minor — in Asian-American studies, while the university’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies offers six semesters of Hmong language courses. Other classes, such as an Asian-American Studies course on Southeast-Asian refugees during the Cold War, include Hmong-American experiences among other topics.

“As a student who’s been taking these courses, it’s simply not enough,” Thao said.

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There were more than 47,000 Hmong-Americans in Wisconsin as of the 2010 census, making them the largest Asian population group in the state; Wisconsin is home to more Hmong-Americans than all but two states. Hmong-Americans on and off campus say those figures point to a need for more classes on the group at UW-Madison, the state’s flagship public university.

Thao said taking that step would “show that UW values Hmong-Americans,” and provide an opportunity for non-Hmong students in fields such as social work to understand the group better.

“It’s important to be able to know how to work with this vulnerable population,” Thao said.

Small field of study

The field of scholars studying the Hmong — both before and after the group began leaving Southeast Asia in large numbers following the Vietnam War — is a small one. UW-Milwaukee offers a certificate in “Hmong Diaspora Studies,” while students at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, can earn a minor in Hmong Studies.

McGlone noted that the 2014 hiring of professor Yang Sao Xiong made UW-Madison the first school in the country with a tenure-track faculty member in Hmong-American studies.

Xiong said the ethnic group is often misunderstood and “highly under-studied.”

“Students are looking for much more in-depth, long-term study,” Xiong said.