Charles Chou Vue — the first Hmong person to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a longtime leader in the university efforts around equity, diversity and inclusion — will retire next month.
When Vue, the associate director in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, retires on Jan. 14, 2022, he will leave behind a legacy of perseverance, advocacy and support.
“I hope that I leave behind a legacy and a footprint that has opened the door of opportunity to many more students,” Vue says in a letter to OMA students. “It has been a rewarding career to see students come to our precollege programs as middle and high school students, return to attend UWEC — graduate, and then return to this campus for career opportunities. More than anything, I will miss the close relationships and time spent with students.”
True to his focus on personal interaction and support, Vue also assured students that he will always be just an email away “if you need my help.”
Olga Diaz, vice chancellor for equity, diversity, inclusion and student affairs, quickly learned just how influential Vue has been in UW-Eau Claire's overall EDI goals, and she appreciates his long and dedicated career.
"Charles has the soothing calm that comes with years of experience," Diaz says. "I have enjoyed getting to know him and learning about his legacy of work supporting students. He knows I wish he would stay with us longer — he has certainly made a difference at UW-Eau Claire."
Since graduating from UW-Eau Claire in 1989, Vue has dedicated his career to building trust with people of color, particularly those of Southeast Asian heritage. His goal, he says, has been to create more inclusive spaces and to offer the kind of support and understanding that he himself needed as a student years ago.
Dang Yang, now director of OMA, says his own success as a UW-Eau Claire student was due in part to advocacy and support from Vue, who he calls his mentor.
“Time and again, Charles has said to me that my success is his success," Yang says. "I am not the only success story that has come from Charles’ influence and support. He opened the door for so many of us, and he had the audacity to hold it open while we passed through. I thank him so much for that.”
A mission built on relationships
At the root of Vue’s career in student services has been a passion and drive to “serve as a bridge,” Vue says.
His work has been a bridge between campus and the community, helping Asian families, particularly those who identify as Hmong, navigate the complexities of higher education; a bridge between a floundering student and the path to their academic success; and increasingly, a bridge between an American-born linguistically and culturally assimilated generation of Southeast Asian students and the opposing pulls of heritage, belonging and identity.
In becoming that multifaceted bridge, Vue says he has relied most heavily on his own student experience as a guide, remembering what he needed most — an advocate.
“Students today have different struggles than I had, but retaining students and seeing them through to graduation is still about helping all students to feel like they belong here, that we care if they succeed here,” Vue says.
When Vue enrolled at UW-Eau Claire in 1984, he was one of only four Hmong students and one of only 132 students of color. Today the number of students identifying as Hmong is 142, and the number of overall students of color enrolled as undergraduates sits at 1180.
Vue’s work has played a vital role in the rise in those numbers, especially in recruiting and retaining Hmong students. His outreach and volunteer work in the Chippewa Valley community, including his terms on the Eau Claire public school board, are among the ways in which his name recognition alone has helped to bring students to UW-Eau Claire.
Caitlin Mai Chong Lee, an equal opportunity specialist in the university’s Affirmative Action Office, has known and worked with Vue on campus and in the community for nearly 15 years, and knows firsthand how deep his impact has been and how sorely he will be missed.
“He is a trusted community liaison, a role that has institutionalized Charles not just at UWEC, but also in the Hmong communities spread across the state,” Lee says.
“We have often heard over the years that parents allowed their children to come to UW-Eau Claire because they ‘trusted Charles’ and believed that he would be able to help their children navigate higher education and UW-Eau Claire successfully.”
Knowing how to establish that trust has been key to Vue’s successful career, and he attributes it, in part, to always remembering what is typical among college-age students.
“Every adult in the world was once this age, and they all had a lot to learn and would make mistakes along the way,” Vue says.
“I’ve tried to create an environment where students feel safe opening up to me, about their successes and their struggles. They won’t take my advice or ask for support in the future if they don’t believe I will understand their mistakes.”
Many initiatives, thousands of students impacted
When Vue joined the OMA staff in 1998, he assumed the role of Southeast Asian student services coordinator, providing supplemental counseling and advising for academic, personal, financial, cultural, career and interpersonal issues confronted by students. Since then, countless students have used OMA’s services, some just once or twice, and others more consistently for the duration of their time as Blugolds.
During his 22 years of working on campus, Vue has worn many hats in OMA and across campus. He has:
- Taught Hmong language classes.
- Coordinated the annual Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month event series.
- Supported the Critical Hmong studies program efforts and initiatives.
- Mentored student research projects.
- Taken part in EDI plan development and EDI faculty/staff training sessions.
- Led domestic and international cultural immersion trips.
- Established and directed a youth leadership precollege camp for middle and high schoolers.
- Established and hosted an OMA graduation ceremony each semester, held the night before commencement.
When reflecting on the breadth of his work at UW-Eau Claire, Vue says he takes particular pride in the Youth Leadership Camp, and the positive influence the experience has had on many area youth.
“I started the camp in 2001, and for 20 years now it has successfully created a pipeline of students of color to a college future, many at UW-Eau Claire and others at different schools,” Vue says of the camp that introduces middle and high school youth to a college campus, helps them envision themselves at college and equips them with some of the skills needed to pursue higher education in their future.
In setting up the camps, Vue’s theory is “like attracts like,” so he intentionally staffs the camps each summer with Hmong and other Southeast Asian students and staff.
“We have currently enrolled Hmong students and staff interacting with young people with the same background,” Vue says. “The whole idea is that if topics and discussions are relevant to the camp participants, then you suddenly have mentors, not just camp staff.”
Vue says over the years he has typically had a waitlist for his camps, even at times when many camp programs have had trouble filling their enrollment goals as kids and families have so many summer options to choose from.
Jodi Thesing-Ritter, EDI training coordinator at UW-Eau Claire, is an experienced youth camp director on campus and in the community who has admired Vue’s work in this arena for decades.
“Charles developed an incredible summer leadership development program that is a model for us to use to support summer learning for future Blugolds for generations to come. His programming has positively impacted so many K-12 students who have gone on to become Blugolds,” Thesing-Ritter says. “This legacy will continue to have a lasting impact.”
Many of the camp participants have gone on to be successful student leaders, especially at UW-Eau Claire, Vue says, noting that nearly 90% of Blugolds who attended his camp have gone on to leadership roles in organizations like the Hmong Student Association (HSA).
“Hmong students at UW-Eau Claire need places where they can be together, lead each other, teach each other, and the HSA has a been a place like that.” Vue says. “The camp not only brings students to UWEC but has created the leaders who later help other Hmong students thrive here.”
Yang says his own current directorship position serves as an example of that mentoring and leadership outcome.
“I served as a camp counselor for the Youth Leadership Camp that Charles developed, and I served as the president of the Hmong Student Association when Charles was the advisor,” Yang says. “As I graduated, Charles helped in my professional job search, and even as I started my career at UW-Stout, I relied on his mentorship to help me envision my professional trajectory.”
Seeing his students across the finish line
Vue’s goal in attracting and retaining Southeast Asian students at UW-Eau Claire is to see them complete their degrees. As a way to make the celebrations around their accomplishments even more personal, Vue created the OMA graduation ceremony.
Each semester, the special OMA event takes place the night before commencement and offers all students of color a special moment to celebrate the milestone with fellow graduates, OMA personnel, other faculty and staff who supported them, and family members.
“Of all the students of color who graduate each semester, about half of them take part in this OMA event,” Vue says of the event, which has celebrated over 660 Hmong students and more than 1,000 total students over the years.
“I want to be there to celebrate all those students I’ve worked so hard to bring to UW-Eau Claire. I want them to remember that UW-Eau Claire was there for them from the beginning to the end.”
As Vue moves on to the next phase of life in a community where his hard work, advocacy and dedication have been seen and felt for decades, he says he will continue to support Hmong students and families as he helps the greater Eau Claire community reach its goals for diversity and inclusion.
“When we all learn to see one another’s assets and potential contributions, to embrace those assets, we will be closer to those goals,” Vue says. “By sharing what we each have to offer, nobody ever gets less — we all just get more.”