University of Wisconsin–Madison

Student led Hmong American studies certificate gaining momentum at UW

By XIANI ZHONG, The Badger Herald

An online petition for University of Wisconsin to create a Hmong American studies certificate has gained traction on social media lately, receiving more than one thousand signatures within a few days.

The Hmong American Studies Certificate petition, or #MakeHASCHappen, is the collective effort of four first-year Hmong American students on campus.

Myxee Thao, chair of the group, said the goal is to educate people at UW about Hmong culture.

“We came up with this idea that we want to have a certificate to educate our peers, and as an opportunity to also learn about ourselves,” Thao said.

The four students started planning the petition during their first semester on campus, Thao said. They felt people do not know enough about Hmong, which is the largest Asian American population in Wisconsin.

After extensive research and information collection, the petition went live on Feb. 8. It asks the UW community to sign and support the effort to broaden the reach of Hmong culture and history.

The group’s original goal was to collect more than 500 signatures. Within a few hours of its launch, the petition gained great momentum and far exceeded the goal, Pangzoo Lee, representative of Hmong American Studies Certificate, said.

“The only reason we got the petition is because we want to show [university administrators] that this is not just a few of us who are into this, but a variety of students who are supporting us and are interested in pursuing the certificate,” Lee said.

The larger UW community, especially faculty members involved in Asian American studies and Southeast Asian studies, is supportive of the effort.

Ian Baird, UW professor in the Department of Geography, is affiliated with the Hmong Studies Consortium, a group UW and University of Minnesota founded to offer expertise and promote research in Hmong studies.

Baird said there has been a longstanding interest within the Hmong community on campus to promote its culture. Though he didn’t know who was behind the petition first, he was not surprised.

“I signed the petition the first day I saw it,” Baird said. “I put my name on it right away.”

Baird said there have been many other advocacies for the Hmong community in the past. UW offers six semesters of Hmong language courses, which was the result of community advocacy and lobbying.

The majority of Hmong in the U.S. are refugees from Laos, Baird said. Since the Hmong sided with the U.S. during the Vietnam War when Laos became a communist country in 1975, they fled to the U.S., he said.

Originally they were spread around the country, but over time they resettled and congregated, and now Wisconsin has become a central point of the Hmong population, Baird said.

Nearly all central cities in Wisconsin, like Milwaukee, Wausau, Green Bay and Eau Claire, have large Hmong populations. Because there are close to 60,000 Hmong people in the state, Baird said it is crucial the university show support to the Hmong community on campus.

“UW-Madison is the leading flagship institution within the state, so it would be symbolically important to Hmong community, to making clear that the state takes Hmong people seriously and wants to support them,” Baird said.

Despite his full support for the effort, Baird said he is not sure whether the proposal will pass under current budget situations. He specifically noted faculty hiring would pose a challenge for the university.

“The more difficult thing, and the more important thing, would be to get more faculty hires so that people could teach the courses that would be necessary to make that a vibrant and viable kind of prospect,” Baird said.

In the meantime, Baird said he and other faculty members are willing to advocate for the certificate, and help the four students in any way they can.

Thao said the four of them contacted faculty members on campus to write a proposal to present to UW administration, but they have not yet looked for faculty who can teach the courses offered as part of the certificate.

Moving forward, Thao and the other group members want to keep collecting signatures. UW has 40,000 students, Thao said, and it would be great if they can get around 10,000 people on board.

“The university said they support diversity, and they support inclusion,” Thao said.“So if they do, and they stand by their word, we hope that they would support our certificate as well.”