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Sharing two worlds

| David Jones

This past May, 16 Blugold students and two faculty members participated in a trip to Fresno, California, for the Hmong Cultural Practices and Ceremonial DII Immersion. This travel seminar, led by University Honors Program instructor Ka Vang, is designed to strengthen the knowledge base of students with a vested interest in learning more about Hmong ceremonial practices. Most of the students who participated are of Hmong heritage, and all have taken the 100-level Hmong Studies course or the Hmong Culture & History Honors colloquium prior to this immersion. 

A strong proponent for Hmong culture preservation, Vang has served on the Hmong Studies Steering Committee, a group currently working to develop a Critical Hmong Studies Program that will serve Blugold students and the larger Eau Claire community.

Vang, along with Dr. David Jones, professor of English and director of the liberal studies program, created an Honors humanities course called "Voices of Color," a multidisciplinary course exploring art, media images and cultural histories among people of color in the United States. Jones was pleased to take the opportunity to serve with his colleague as supervisor on the Hmong Cultural Practices and Ceremonial Immersion trip, and found the experience to be profound both on a personal level and in his role as a campus leader. He offers the following reflection.

Sharing two worlds

David JonesWhile my official title on this immersion was supervisor, I experienced much of this trip as a learner. Being a scholar in the field of African American literature and a recent faculty fellow for EDI (equity, diversity and inclusiveness), I found that the immersion experience challenged me to step aside from being "the expert" and to be a caring listener instead. To hear many varied expressions of Hmong language was a powerful experience, a reminder to me that our students bring a depth of knowledge and skills to the campus that should be welcomed and appreciated in all settings.

The center of operations for the immersion was the Fresno Center for New Americans, a large nonprofit agency that assists immigrants from all over the world as they transition to life in the United States. The center provides services that span the generations represented in more than 32,000 Hmong residents of Fresno. Bee Yang, who teaches in the department of social work at California State University, Fresno, helped connect us with Hmong community leaders from across all walks of life, from vegetable farmers in Fresno to a circuit court judge in Merced; from a practicing shaman in Stockton to a superintendent at a Hmong immersion school in Sacramento. We even had the opportunity to appear on a talk show on the national Hmong TV network, which was a pleasant and challenging surprise for our whole group.   

The greatest impact of the trip for me, though, was spending time with students, particularly Hmong heritage students. As we discussed Hmong social and political structures — clan systems, marriage and funeral traditions, methods of resolving conflict — I listened with care as the students discussed their own relationships to these cultural practices. One of the most powerful moments of the immersion was a dialogue across generations that included our group of students and Circuit Judge Paul Lo. Judge Lo lived through the experience of leaving Laos after the Vietnam War and staying in a refugee camp in Thailand for part of his childhood. He spoke of his amazing personal journey and the strategies for assimilation that helped him achieve success as the first Hmong circuit court judge in the U.S. 

In that same dialogue, I heard many students describe their struggle to stay true to both ancestral traditions and new ways of living, with everyday encounters with racism causing additional difficulties. Some of the students had family members who arrived in the United States as middle-aged or elderly adults, with language and cultural differences making it unlikely that they will integrate fully into the majority culture of Western Wisconsin. Clearly, the perspectives of all generations are essential to include as we strive to build institutions that serve whole communities. 

The immersion experience included many destinations. I will always remember our recreation time as an added pleasure — a flea market in Fresno, Santa Cruz at seaside, sampling freshly picked cucumbers at a Fresno farm. Our final meal at the Center for New Americans was an emotional moment for me as I shared my thoughts about this eloquent and caring group of students and community scholars that welcomed me so warmly.

Having returned to Eau Claire, it is clearer to me than ever that we, as university leaders, need to strengthen our commitment to welcoming and educating more than 250 Hmong-American students on campus. Strengthening our campus commitment means sustaining campus programs that explore Hmong history and culture, improving our ability to engage in dialogue across perceived cultural differences, recognizing and responding effectively to incidents of racism and bias, and dedicating ourselves to knowing and serving individual students equitably. 

The Hmong Cultural Practices and Ceremonial Immersion was personally transforming and enriching for me as a faculty member and as a citizen, a valuable opportunity to learn about the triumphs and struggles, achievements and dilemmas that are experienced by many members of our Eau Claire community. I sincerely thank my colleague Ka Vang and a dedicated core of 16 Blugold students for assisting me in my efforts to become a better ally for all students at UW-Eau Claire.