A student-led research project aimed at uncovering the experiences of Hmong students at the University of Wisconsin found all of its participants felt excluded and unwelcome on campus.
The HMoob American Studies Committee, a Hmong student activist group, partnered with the Center for College-Workforce Transitions to conduct the study. The group chose the name HMoob instead of Hmong to better reflect the history of Hmong Americans and to challenge the “Americanization” of the Hmong name, heritage and people.
Through interviews, participant observations and collection of syllabi and bias reports, the researchers found each of the 27 HMoob student participants felt excluded in white-dominated areas on campus. The participants identified residence halls, Grainger Hall, the Kohl Center, Camp Randall, Langdon Street and classrooms, including mainstream Asian courses, as spaces where they faced micro-aggressions and bias.
“Literally, like, white people have a place all over this campus, and then students of color have the Red Gym, each other’s houses and classes that are made for their people,” a participant told the researchers. “I don’t think Madison is welcoming to any student of color, especially if you’re an ethnic minority.”
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Hmong Americans make up the largest Asian American population in America and in Wisconsin. Following the Vietnam War, more than 200,000 Hmong fled to Thailand, where they settled as refugees. More than 90 percent of these refugees have since resettled to the U.S., concentrating heavily in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
HMoob American enrollment at UW has been in decline since 2013. Whereas 373 HMoob students enrolled at UW in 2013, just 292 did in 2018. Madison College, meanwhile, has seen a steady increase in their HMoob population, which the researchers believe is due to barriers at UW — like rising tuition costs or a worsening economy.
These students also graduate at a lower rate than other students, with 72 percent graduating in six years compared to 84 percent for the general population. The researchers, concerned with unequal results for HMoob students and a lack of focus on the challenges facing them, said they have received and analyzed the first disaggregated data on the HMoob student population at UW.
HMoob students consistently reported feeling more comfortable in private spaces than public spaces on campus. Even the Multicultural Student Center, a space expressly for students of color on campus, received mixed opinions from participants. The participants said they only visited the MSC because the organizations they were apart of held events there.
Within the halls of the university and across Madison, the participants faced macro- and micro-aggressions that made them feel unwelcome. One participant said her freshman year neighbors would talk to her in a slow tone of voice, assuming she didn’t know or speak English. Despite being born in the U.S., they reported feeling like they did not fit in.
Though all of the participants reported experiences of bias, less than half reported the incidents. Some students thought the incident was not severe enough to warrant a bias report, while others distrusted how the university handled such reports. However, the students who reported the incidents felt supported by the university, prompting the researchers to investigate the disconnect between how the university acts and how it is perceived by HMoob students.
“UW-Madison strongly promotes inclusion and diversity … However that diversity framework celebrates these social differences rather than recognizing the social and racial inequalities on campus,” one of the researchers said. “If the university prides itself on diversity, then the university needs to address the racial inequalities that are happening here as well.”
The researchers highlighted several recommendations for how to lessen institutional bias and improve feelings of belonging for HMoob students on campus, starting with the need for more research.
While the 27 student participants provided rich data, they made up just 10 percent of the HMoob population on campus. The researchers admitted that more research is needed to fully understand the HMoob experience at UW.
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The researchers also called on the university to report disaggregated data on HMoob students, recruit more HMoob students from the state to reverse the group’s declining enrollment, expand academic and career-focused groups like PEOPLE and the Center for Academic Excellence, and recruit more advisors and professors with HMoob backgrounds.
While the researchers noted that research was being conducted on HMoob communities in Wisconsin, the studies were largely limited to issues of socio-economic status, poverty and underperformance in schools. To better drive the academic, career and personal goals of HMoob students, however, they called on more research focused on the college level.
“Since there’s a growing number of HMoob students in higher education, why is there no documentation of their college experiences?” one researcher asked. “This results in a lack of sufficient information and support to enable their success.”