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UCLA Hmong Students "Giving Voice to Hmong American Experiences"

One UCLA Hmong student leader says the recent Hmong American academic conference shows that there is material and demand to introduce Hmong studies into the curriculum.

By Chong Moua (Ntxoo Muas)

Los Angeles -- The University of California, Los Angeles is home to over 35,000 college students from all over the nation and the globe. If you sit outside the student union long enough, you will see people from all walks of life; the world will have seemed to walk by. Among the masses of students crisscrossing the campus daily are the Hmong students; all 25 of us. As one can easily imagine, few people know that Hmong people exist and even fewer know anything about us.

The Association of Hmong Students (AHS), the Hmong student organization on campus, is well aware of this predicament. As a result, for the past two years we, AHS, have made it our top priority to expose our campus to Hmong, Hmong history, Hmong topics and Hmong issues to the UCLA community. Our reason for this is fair and simple: As college students, we take classes in various subjects such as History, Sociology, Asian American Studies and Southeast Asian Studies, among others, and learn about pressing issues that are affecting certain communities. However, we do not see the very relevant problems of our own community being reflected in those classes. We feel that our issues and struggles are just as valid as any of those that are taught to us. And if we are the future of the Hmong community, then we have the responsibility and obligation to learn about our community in order to best address its problems and needs. More importantly, as college students at a public institution such as UCLA, we also have the right to demand that our history, our issues and our topics be taught in the curriculum.

With this goal in mind, we decided to take a direct approach by hosting our first annual Hmong education conference in the Spring of 2004. Our first conference was called “Giving Voice to Hmong American Experiences: Creating Dialogue, Creating Change.” As the title implies, our goal was to gather UCLA students, faculty, staff and administrators to engage in dialogue with AHS about our wants and needs. The success of the first conference proved to be an inspiration and a source of motivation for us to follow up with a second conference. The second conference, called “Giving Voice to Hmong American Experiences: Research and Rhetoric,” was held May 7, 2005 at the Kerckhoff Grand Salon on the UCLA campus. Our focus this year was to showcase researchers who are currently conducting research on Hmong topics and issues to the UCLA community. One recurring obstacle to implementing a Hmong American experience course was that there is no one qualified or knowledgeable enough to teach such a course. Therefore, by bringing these researchers to UCLA, we are simply saying that these are qualified peoples who could be potential professors or guest lecturers.

We chose “Research and Rhetoric” as our theme because we wanted to showcase the availability and variety of research that was being done about Hmong issues and topics. As for rhetoric, we feel that our conference is our rhetoric. Through the conference we will be able to relay our demand and our needs in a manner that is conducive and effective. We were able to bring in researchers from all over California to present their research and methodology.

Bao Lo, an Ethnic Studies Ph D student from UC Berkeley, presented her research on the life chances of Hmong youth, focusing on the different factors (i.e. school life, family life, social conditions, economic status) that affect Hmong youth today. She hopes to further her research to look at Hmong teen suicide. Leena Her, also a Ph D student in the Education program at Stanford, presented her research on how English Language Learners, students whose native language is not English, are perceived and talked about. More specifically, she talked about how this way of "talking" about English Language Learners has negative ramifications later in their schooling. Seng A. Vang, an Ethnic Studies Ph D student from UC San Diego, presented his findings from a research trip he took with other scholars and college students to China. The group’s main objective was to do a study of majority and minority groups, such as Hmong, in China so that educators could develop curriculum and have material to teach. Seng hopes to return to China to further his own research interest of Hmong history in China and contemporary issues such as minority education policy and cultural tourism.

"I was intrigued and inspired by the [Hmong] culture after having worked at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Reading Room with some Hmong students. And also as an advocate for underrepresented groups, I felt everyone should be in the know about other groups," was Sarah P. Mamaril’s answer as to why she decided to research Hmong college students. She was our last guest presenter and spoke about the success of Hmong college students at UCLA. Sarah is an Asian American Studies and Sociology major and hopes to expand her research to include other Hmong college students in Southern California. As a Filipino American doing research on Hmong, Sarah found it most surprising that people automatically assumed she was Hmong simply because she was doing research on Hmong.

Last but not least, we had the pleasure of having Dr. Kao-Ly Yang as our keynote speaker. She spoke specifically about the need for better research methodology for native researchers, those who do research within their own communities. She especially stressed the need for indigenous theory for native researchers. Dr. Kao-Ly says she decided to be a part of the conference, "because of its nature. It is a research conference where I was hoping to meet some of the new generation of Hmong interested by research in social sciences. I also had message to deliver: I wanted to remind Hmong students that doing research is fun and enlightening. It helps us, native researchers, to better understand our community, our elderly, our parents, our friends and to better capture our contemporary issues in a larger context."

Dr. Kao-Ly also shared her thoughts on this generation of Hmong college students: "I think Hmong students feel they are not totally Hmong but not totally American too; they live in two worlds that seem to have no bridge, no communication." She says that this duality makes it very important for students to study their own communities. "I strongly recommend Hmong students to pay a visit to their culture during their years as students -- because they cannot deny their origin -- taking the time to study their language, culture and history so that they will find reasons to go higher in their education."

AHS also took an active part in the conference by presenting a student initiated course syllabus and course reader for a potential Hmong American experience class. This was our way of addressing the issue of the availability of material out there to teach a Hmong American experience class. Moreover, this was our way of communicating to UCLA staff and faculty that we, as students, want to be active participants in shaping our curriculum.

Our task of implementing a Hmong American experience class is only beginning. With future conferences we hope to draw more students, Hmong and non-Hmong, and hope that they will take the initiative to start something of this nature on their campus. As is customary in Hmong, we don’t say "Good bye" but instead "Sib ntsib dua" -- see you next year!

Chong Moua is a third year UCLA undergraduate student and leader in the Association of Hmong Students. She is also a co-author of the student initiated course syllabus and course reader for a potential Hmong American experience class.

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