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More than an academic endeavor: Casey Moua's journey of self-discovery

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Later this month, Casey Moua of Eau Claire will receive a bachelor's degree in communication and sociology, as well as the 2020 Excellence in Leadership Award from the Office of Multicultural Affairs for their work as a program student intern.

It's a cornerstone of the Blugold education, a promise made to all first-year students — the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire offers transformational opportunities and experiences that connect them to people, places and communities that can be life-changing. And every commencement season highlights these outcomes. 

But sometimes the most important journeys of transformation that take place are the inward ones, the important answers that Blugolds find in the quest for self-discovery and self-actualization.

Graduating senior Casey Moua will happily accept a degree in communication and sociology on Dec. 19, a degree that has been hard-earned and fulfilling. However, there is perhaps an even more significant accomplishment that Moua will take from this campus on that day as a first-generation graduate, and that is fairly new self-acceptance in all aspects of life as a proud Hmong-American and as a queer nonbinary individual living in a world that isn't always accepting. 

"In the spring semester of my sophomore year, I changed my major from biology to communication, with a minor in sociology," Moua says. "My priority in choosing this major was to not find a career path for me, but rather a means to a self-discovering journey. I love how broad this combination is; I was able to have discussions critiquing who I am as a person as well as critiquing the campus and community environments."  

A critical part of Moua's journey of self-discovery was rooted in finding a deeper understanding of Hmong history and culture, both of which shape their Hmong identity. Moua took part in an immersion trip to Fresno, California, in 2017 and Thailand in 2019, the balance of which helped to give them a much more clear picture of life for Hmong ancestry both here in the U.S. as immigrants and in the native areas of Southeast Asia.

"My goal for these trips was to gather the historical and cultural information and create a new meaning for myself," Moua says. "I am queer and nonbinary — I don’t exist in my Hmong culture and I stick out like a sore thumb in predominantly white institutions like this one."

Like many young adults, Moua faced challenges with family and community relationships once publicly identifying as queer nonbinary. 

"It has been a struggle for acceptance in my family and the community," Moua says. "The structure of family is not separated from the foundations of the Hmong community rules; it is about saving face. This was a battle between sacrificing myself to save my family's name or continue to live as an outcast being who I am."

Dang Yang, director of UW-Eau Claire's Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), helps to put Moua's experiences into a social context that pinpoints these difficulties.  

"The issues that Casey visibly outlines are topics that have been at the forefront of progressive Hmong community work for quite some time," Yang says. "There certainly is nuance. While there are clearly Hmong cultural values that dismiss Casey and can sometimes manifest in violence toward them due to their nonbinary identity, Casey is vehemently proud to be Hmong, too. Our community struggles with this cognitive dissonance, but nevertheless, Casey makes visible the nuanced interplay between being proudly nonbinary and being proudly Hmong."

As a student of color and a member of the queer community, Moua faced compounding needs to find a network of support in an environment that posed multiple barriers to their student success. They found this network working as an intern in OMA and through relationships with staff members like program associate Dua Ci Khang. 

"Dua Ci has been a great support for my academic growth by showing great leadership skills, empowering Hmong womxn identity and especially by being a great friend," Moua says. "I have worked with Dua Ci as an intern for OMA and have been close with her when she was running Viv Ncaus, which is a Hmong sisterhood organization. We were also both on the executive board for the Hmong Student Association."

Khang, a 2019 alumna with a broadfield social studies teaching degree, is reluctant to frame her interactions with Moua as one of "assistance" necessarily, but rather sees it as a mutually beneficial exchange of thoughts and ideas. 

"Casey opened their life up to me and I was able to assist in grounding Casey to their true self; I did that through encouraging Casey to utilize the morals they lived by to ground their life," Khang says. "Through the process, we created a relationship that was built on trust, care and reciprocal sharing of knowledge. I learned as much from Casey as they did from me; I grew as much from Casey as they did from me — it was a full-circle relationship. 

"Casey’s road was so heartbreaking and glorious to see from someone who wanted to see them succeed. I saw Casey tread through the darkest moments of their life and sail through the most beautiful moments of their life. I saw Casey existing in their own space because the dominant spaces in society did not want to include them.  

"I know it was exhausting for Casey, but I want to let them know that from someone who was supporting Casey, they were a trailblazer to me. Casey reminded the world that their existence as a queer, nonbinary Hmong individual is here to stay and is an integral part of society."

"I needed support systems to help me navigate my way in this institution," Moua says. "I am proud that OMA has helped me grow and validate my experiences as a queer person of color on campus. I would like to thank all the OMA staff and interns I have worked with, friends and OMA organizations for opening their doors and giving me the opportunities to grow as a leader, a student and an individual." 

Moua will receive the 2020 Excellence in Leadership Award at the OMA graduation celebration for the fall graduates. Charles Vue, associate director of OMA, will make a presentation that reads, in part, "Casey, you will be missed for being instrumental in creating activities that have led to better understanding and collaboration among Asian Americans, and brought students and staff closer as we strive for common vision and goals." 

Moua has no immediate plan after graduation, choosing to take their time in considering a career path or graduate school, now equipped with the confidence to understand that not knowing everything right now is OK, and the sheer act of graduating during a global pandemic is "enough." They are, on the other hand, thinking of the future in terms of how we should all continue growing and learning.   

"My final message to us all is the hope we continuously critique ourselves and critique the institutions and organizations we find ourselves in. If your existence intimidates your oppressors while empowering others, keep on strutting. Go and reclaim your power."