University needs Hmong American studies program

If the university wants to be inclusive, they need to acknowledge support for creating this certificate.

Image By: Morgan Winston and Morgan Winston

For the past two years, we have been fighting to establish a Hmong American Studies Certificate Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Our initiative has gained widespread support from UW students, alumni and members of the Wisconsin community. As registered students, we believe it is our right to petition for changes that will be more responsive to and more inclusive of Hmong American students and their lived experiences on campus. However, some university staff, faculty, and administrators have attempted to diminish our student voices and needs. We write today in response to those who have starkly disregarded us. We write in response to those whose actions have shown us they do not truly stand for diversity or the principles of a liberal arts education.

In attempt to minimize our voice, opponents of our petition have claimed that teaching students about Hmong Americans and their experiences is unnecessary. However, across campus, many faculty, researchers and professional service providers teach about, do research within or provide services to Hmong American communities. Notably, as future leaders and service providers, students need to learn about the history and needs of Hmong Americans who make up the largest Asian American population in Wisconsin. Therefore, the view that it is unnecessary to teach about Hmong Americans is deeply concerning and personally offensive to those of us whose experiences continue to be left out of the curriculum.

To continue, some opponents claim that we are selfish for demanding an ethnic-specific program because the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They also claim that there are “existing resources” such as the Asian American Studies Program and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. However, we argue that pan-ethnic programs like Asian American studies are problematic because, while they claim to be “pan-ethnic,” the narratives of dominant groups — in this case East Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) Americans —occupy the majority of their courses. In programs such as Southeast Asian studies, which focuses on distinct regions, the emphasis is on the Southeast Asian context rather than the American context. By subsuming Hmong American studies under Asian American studies or Southeast Asian studies, Hmong Americans and their experiences remain overlooked.

In the case that Hmong American studies is pushed under Asian American studies or the Center for Southeast Asian studies, issues of inequity persist. Hmong American students will still lack access to faculty who specialize in Hmong American studies. Hmong American students will still lack access to staff who understand their lived experiences as marginalized people. Hmong American students will still lack an academic safe space. Hmong American students will still lack resources that contribute to the development of their racial and ethnic identities.

Lastly, staff, faculty and administrators have attempted to make us feel powerless by claiming that money is an issue. While we acknowledge that resources are limited, we argue that the university chooses their priorities. By insisting that money is an issue but giving money to other initiatives, they are insisting that Hmong Americans — the most present Southeast Asian American population within the UW student body — will not be given priority.

We recognize that the University has given priority to expanding Hmong/Hmong American studies in the past by hiring two tenured-track professors, creating Hmong language courses, and creating one permanent Hmong American course. However, these expansions related to Hmong American Studies were only a result of quick fixes to racist incidents and relentless pressure from the greater Hmong community. Since those incidents, the university has not been proactive in continuing to develop Hmong American studies. Are they waiting for another racist incident to happen to Hmong American students before they are compelled to listen to our needs?

If the University stands for diversity—delineated in the UW Diversity Framework—then the University should not disregard the voices of a significant segment of its student body. It should not disregard Hmong Americans, their rich history, narratives, culture and contributions to American society and to the world. The University must establish programs and spaces — as the ones we have been proposing — that support students and their learning rather than dismissing students who want to learn about the things that matter to them. Until the university does this, its goals of promoting “shared values of diversity and inclusion,” and “improving institutional access through effective recruitment of diverse students, faculty, staff and through effective relationship building with the wider community” are empty promises.

If the university stands for principles of a liberal arts education, it needs to take responsibility for promoting critical thinking and social responsibility as outlined in the “Wisconsin Idea.” Like the majority students on campus, Hmong American students deserve the opportunity to cultivate their sense of self and broaden their worldviews.

As Hmong American students, it is frustrating and exhausting to have to defend ourselves for seeking inclusion and equity on our campus. However, every time we experience discrimination, exclusion, and biased comments or actions, we are reaffirmed that our fight is necessary. Above all, we are reminded that our initiative — our movement — stands for social justice in a much broader sense. We are demanding institutions of education to recognize and change the deep-rooted inequalities that marginalizes students. We also demand that the University of Wisconsin-Madison recognizes and implements changes that are more inclusive of the students and communities that it serves.

We, the Hmong American Studies Committee, will not accept rejection.

The Hmong American Studies Committee (HASC) is a student-led initiative that is actively advocating for a Hmong American Studies program and certificate at UW-Madison. Please send any thoughts to opinion@dailycardinal.com.

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