After more than 24 years of working in law enforcement at UW-Eau Claire, Jay Dobson has seen many changes at his alma mater, including everything from new buildings to new policing issues associated with social media and other technologies.
One thing that hasn’t changed much during his two-plus decades on campus is the makeup of University Police personnel, with campus police officers continuing to be mostly male and always white.
Dobson, who now serves as chief of University Police, is working to change the status quo, this fall hiring two new officers who will add ethnic and gender diversity to his unit.
“I’m really excited to have them on board,” Dobson says of new officers Vincent Xiong and Vanessa Evenson. “We’ve already had a lot of conversations about helping to bridge divisions on campus.”
Xiong is the first Hmong officer hired by University Police, Dobson says, adding that the only other person of color to work for the department was a part-time officer in the mid-1990s.
Evenson will join two other female officers in the 11-officer department, Dobson says.
Xiong and Evenson currently are completing the required Police Academy training at Chippewa Valley Technical College, so they will begin their work on campus in mid-October.
Both officers’ interests and skill sets align well with university policing’s mission, Dobson says.
“Our officers have to like to engage with the campus community,” Dobson says. “They have to be strong communicators who enforce laws but also educate students about them. Restorative justice is big with us. We give students opportunities to change their behaviors so they don’t make the mistake again.”
Evenson grew up in Eau Claire and earned her criminal justice degree from UW-Eau Claire in May, so she already knows the campus and community well. Xiong is a respected leader in the city of Eau Claire and has a daughter who is a current Blugold, so he also has strong campus and community ties.
“They both are very valuable hires,” Dobson says of the new officers. “They are assets to the campus.”
A longtime dream comes true
Vincent Xiong came from Laos to the U.S. in 1980 when he was just 10 years old, settling with his family first in Oklahoma City and then Appleton. As one of the first Hmong refugees in the U.S., he spoke no English and had no one to guide him as he navigated his new schools and communities.
“Yes and no were the only words I knew in English and I didn’t know what they meant,” Xiong says. “There was a high level of racism. In school, I remember being kicked, pushed down, tripped, shoved into showers and locked in lockers. All of these actions were just overlooked by teachers and others.”
The only time he felt safe was when law enforcement was close by, Xiong says.
“We weren’t bullied when law enforcement was present,” Xiong says. “So, if we saw a police officer, we’d stay in their vicinity. It’s where we felt we were safe.”
He decided then that he wanted to be a police officer so he could give others that same sense of feeling safe.
He also knew, however, that his dreams would have to wait because with his father still in Laos working on behalf of the U.S. government, Xiong was responsible for his family’s health and financial well-being.
“Within Hmong culture, the oldest son has a lot of responsibilities,” Xiong says. “So, from the time I was 12, I was fully responsible for my mother and siblings; it was my job to support them financially and emotionally. It forced me to grow up fast. I worked for cash to support our family, though we still lived in severe poverty. I remember starving myself so there would be food for my siblings.”
After 10th grade, Xiong left high school so he had more time to work on farms and in restaurants and factories, earning money so his siblings could continue their education and pursue their dreams.
Several years later, with his family more financially stable and his siblings more independent, Xiong did earn his general education degree and soon moved into a management role at a manufacturing company. He was comfortable managing people, but didn’t have the training to do it efficiently, he says.
So, he went back to school, earning an associate degree in management from North Central Technical College. With his new degree in hand, his employer quickly promoted him again.
“That’s when I really knew that education was the key to success,” Xiong says.
At that same time, a growing number of Hmong refugees were coming to the U.S., but they were struggling to become financially independent because of language and other barriers, Xiong says.
“As a manager, I could see that if we didn’t do something to help Hmong people communicate in the workplace, they couldn’t succeed,” Xiong says. “So, I helped create training manuals and other resources for people who couldn’t read English. They were very successful and helped many Hmong community members get jobs that could sustain their families.”
While those efforts helped them be more successful in the workplace, many Hmong community members still were struggling in the community because they didn’t understand American laws, he says.
“As first-generation Hmong-Americans, we were the only ones to speak Hmong and English and understand how to adapt to American culture and laws,” Xiong says. “We were in a position to help. I began studying American laws and ordinances so I could support the Hmong community.”
Xiong, who was married by then and had a young family, decided it was time to finally pursue his long-held dream of working in law enforcement. So, he returned to college, this time earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Upper Iowa University.
“With my degree, I went into Hmong communities to educate them about the criminal justice system, and about the laws and ordinances,” Xiong says. “I found the volunteer work interesting and rewarding.”
What he could not find, however, was a paid position within law enforcement.
“At the time, there were few openings and many applicants,” Xiong says of his job search. “Many places were not ready for a Hmong officer. As a person of color, I could sense the racism and discrimination.”
After 18 months, Xiong gave up his job search and returned to his career in manufacturing, though he continued to volunteer his time to teach Hmong community members about American laws.
About that same time, Xiong’s world shifted again when his father joined his family in the U.S., 23 years after Xiong had last seen him. While thankful for the reunion, he quickly realized his father had mental health issues caused by the decades he spent living in war conditions, he says.
While trying to get his father help, Xiong discovered that there were few resources available because mental health professionals didn’t understand Hmong language or cultural norms.
“It was frustrating, but it sparked something in my mind — I knew there was a need for bilingual counselors and counselors who understood Hmong culture,” Xiong says.
At that same time Xiong also learned that both his father and his wife had cancer.
“It was like a bomb went off,” he says. “I tried to be the best son and best husband for them in the last stage of their lives.”
His father died in November 2005 and his wife died a few months later in February 2006.
The depression hit him hard, Xiong says, but he knew he had to get himself back on track because his children, mother and siblings all needed him to be strong. In his grief, he traveled back to Laos and Thailand for the first time, revisiting his birthplace and the refugee camps where he lived for a time.
“It helped me find myself again,” Xiong says of his journey. “By the time I came back, I knew what I had gone through was a mental health crisis. Since I already knew there was a shortage of bilingual counselors, I decided to go back to school again, this time to study mental health.”
After earning his master’s in counseling at UW-Stout, his goal was to help the Hmong community better manage and understand their mental health.
However, to earn his accreditation, he needed to spend 2,000 hours observing accredited counselors, something he couldn’t afford to do given his family obligations. Without accreditation, the only counseling-related jobs he could find paid far less than what he earned in manufacturing.
“Still, it was not a waste of time because this education allowed me to help myself and to educate the Hmong community in a volunteer role,” Xiong says. “Now, more Hmong people realize they have mental health issues. That really was my goal and I feel like I accomplished it.”
Eventually, Xiong left manufacturing to serve as executive director of the Eau Claire Area Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, a nonprofit organization. He was in that role when the Trump administration began deporting Hmong refugees, which was a blow to him and the Hmong community, Xiong says.
“We didn’t sneak into the country or land here by mistake,” Xiong says. “Our parents fought and gave up their lives, their families and fortunes for the freedom they were promised for assisting the United States. When the government started talking about deporting Hmong refugees, it brought me back to when I was growing up and feeling threatened and unsafe.”
That sense of feeling unsafe made him think again about his dream of working in law enforcement.
So, when he heard that UW-Eau Claire’s University Police would be hiring, he decided to apply.
“This really is coming back full circle to my dream,” Xiong says of joining the campus police. “Part of my dream always has been to make people of color feel safer. I want the Hmong community and other people of color to feel safe talking to a police officer. I hope I can create a safer feeling for them here.”
His presence on campus is especially important as the university continues its efforts to diversify the campus community, Xiong says.
“I’ve always felt safe in the presence of law enforcement; that’s not changed after all these years,” Xiong says. “Now, I want to make others feel safe so they can actually learn. I feel like the campus is ready for me to be here and this is where I want to be. I’m not the typical recruit, but I’m a good fit.”
While it is a challenging time to be entering law enforcement given the issues around policing, Xiong says he is ready to do his part to make a positive difference.
“I know when I’m in that uniform, I will have thousands of eyes looking at me and judging how I behave, act and lead,” Xiong says. “I’ve built my whole life around showing respect, educating people and leading by example, so that’s what I will continue to do. I hope I have an impact so everyone can live, work and learn in an environment where all people feel safe.”
Blugold finds her place close to home
Vanessa Evenson was in a high school criminal justice class when her teacher invited the school’s police liaison officer to talk about his work in law enforcement.
“After his presentation, I knew I had found my calling,” Evenson says, noting that she also has family members who have worked in law enforcement. “I was inspired, and I knew I wanted to become a police officer and serve the community.
“Helping people is important to me and law enforcement creates so many opportunities to do that, often at a time when people are at their lowest moments. It’s the right career for me.”
When she first began thinking about working in law enforcement, the idea of being in a field that is historically known to be male dominated did initially make her a bit nervous, Evenson says.
“I questioned whether I could do the job as effectively as my male counterparts,” Evenson says. “Then, after I had experience in the field, I realized that women are as capable as their male counterparts and sometimes even more effective.”
For example, research shows that women often are better at communicating with subjects and de-escalating situations using just their verbal skills, Evenson says.
“Rather than having to use other means to gain compliance from a subject, female officers can often just communicate verbally and quickly gain compliance that way,” Evenson says.
Evenson was surprised but happy to find that half the recruits in her academy training are women.
“It shows the field of law enforcement is attracting more females and slowly becoming more balanced in regard to gender,” Evenson says. “I hope I’m part of a movement that will show young girls and women that law enforcement needs us. We are compassionate, we are good at communicating and we can bring people together, all things that have a lot of power within law enforcement.”
An Eau Claire native, Evenson knew UW-Eau Claire had a quality criminal justice program, which made her hometown campus a logical place to study once she had decided on her major.
The quality of the courses and the opportunities outside of the classroom aligned perfectly with her interests, Evenson says, noting that she added a psychology minor after realizing how well it would complement her criminal justice major.
“Becoming a Blugold was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Evenson says. “UWEC allowed me to explore the world through study abroad. I studied abroad in Winchester, England, for a semester. I took criminal justice courses abroad and learned about the criminal justice system in the U.K.”
Another highlight of her education was collaborating on research with Dr. Jason Spraitz, associate professor of criminal justice. Their research focused on clerical sexual abuse in the archdiocese of Chicago and the grooming behavior/techniques used by some clerical members in that area, she says.
“I am very appreciative to have been given such a rewarding opportunity,” Evenson says of the research, adding that Spraitz served as her mentor as well as her professor and research collaborator.
It was Spraitz who helped her secure an internship with UW-Eau Claire’s University Police, an internship that allowed her to find her niche within the law enforcement field as well as her first professional job.
“I got to know the department, the officers and what university police do,” Evenson says of the internship. “I had no prior knowledge about university policing. I fell in love with the department and university policing. University police ensure safety on campus, but also provide safety education and training to students, staff and faculty.”
During her internship, Evenson sat in on safety education and training presentations to university staff and faculty, including ALICE training, which addresses handling situations when there is an active threat on campus. She also participated in a self-defense class for students taught by University Police.
“Their work to share safety information made me realize how much I enjoy working with students, staff and faculty on law enforcement education and training,” Evenson says. “I wouldn’t have those same kinds of opportunities to educate people if I was working for another kind of law enforcement agency.”
Working for her alma mater is a welcome bonus, Evenson says.
“It is exciting to give back to and work for the university that offered me so many life opportunities and experiences,” Evenson says. “UW-Eau Claire has given me so much. It makes it that much more special and rewarding for me to be here. This is my dream job.”
Evenson says her approach to policing makes her a great fit for the position.
“Supporting the community and showing empathy and compassion are the parts of law enforcement that interest me most,” Evenson says. “That’s what’s so great about being here. We’re not just here to enforce laws but to support our students and the entire campus.”
“I am determined to do the job well and show the campus community that I am there to serve, support and protect them, while upholding my integrity and commitment to the field of law enforcement.”