“Being Hmong, you don’t really have a place”: Hmong American Alumni at UW–Madison

By Chong A. Moua

This post is the last in a series of blog posts celebrating the 2021 Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month at UW–Madison. For more information about APIDA events and programming, visit UW–Madison’s APIDA Heritage Month page.

The research in this blog post was completed as a part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Public History Project. The multi-year project aims to reckon with the university’s history of racism, exclusion, and discrimination. The project will culminate in an exhibit in the fall of 2022, an interactive online website, and curricular tools. By sharing research before the opening of the exhibit, we hope to begin conversations about the history of UW–Madison and discuss how we can all work towards building a more equitable campus community. The nature of historical research is that it will always be incomplete. It is impossible for us to know everything that happened in the past. Therefore, the research in this post is imperfect, as all history is. Our student researchers have completed the research below with all of the historical documents available to them at the time of publication. There will be alternative perspectives to those detailed below. We believe that the discussions that arise out of these differing perspectives are an integral part of the process of reckoning with our history. We welcome responses and discussion. Responses submitted by email will be posted in a response and discussion post within one week after the original publication date. Responses with vulgar or offensive language will not be posted.

Content Warning: The UW–Madison Public History Project blog aims to provide a space where our community can begin the difficult work of reckoning with our history. Some of the content and language in this blog post is disturbing. In this post, you will encounter descriptions of anti-Asian, racist stereotypes.

I joined the Public History Project team in June of 2020, right after campus and the entire country swiftly moved to shut down in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The Project was looking for a graduate student with the knowledge and capabilities to research the experience of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) alumni. As a Hmong American graduate student who is pursuing a PhD for the purpose of including Hmong refugee history within U.S. Cold War history, I jumped at the opportunity to insert Hmong American voices into the history of UW–Madison because institutionally funded projects tend to not include APIDA topics and issues.

In my job interview with Kacie Lucchini Butcher, the director of the Public History Project, I was transparent in my goal for the position, saying that if given the chance, “I was going to find my people” and use this opportunity as a way to “claim institutional space” for Hmong American students, past, present, and future. Considering the exponential reemergence of anti-Asian racism and discrimination since the beginning of the pandemic, these interviews with Hmong American alumni are timely in that they reveal how their experiences at UW–Madison underscore the historical and continued invisibility of Asian Americans in the U.S.[1]

Hmong American students began matriculating into colleges and universities across Wisconsin in the mid-1980s, with their numbers slowly increasing into the 1990s.[2] Data on Hmong American students attending UW System schools was not easily obtainable until 2006 when UW–Madison (and 2008 the rest of the UW System schools) began offering “Hmong” as an ethnic category on their applications for admission. A report, the first of its kind to disaggregate the data on Hmong American students, compiled by a team of researchers at UW–Madison noted that prior to 2006, the UW system typically combined data on Hmong students within larger categories such as “Asian,” “Southeast Asian,” or “Targeted Minority” in public reports on students. Within the UW system, over 3,132 Hmong American students have attended UW–Madison from 2008–2018 (second to UW–Milwaukee, 6,494), with the majority of them coming from Wisconsin. [3] In my interviews with them, Hmong American alumni expressed that to be Hmong on campus was to be “exhausted” from constantly explaining who Hmong people were, surviving a multitude of microaggression, and carving out a sense of belonging and community in their own terms.[4]

Racially at “home” at UW–Madison

For Hmong American students who grew up in the Midwest, especially in small rural cities where the population was predominantly white, their experiences at UW–Madison campus felt like “home” in that they experienced similar forms of racism and discrimination on campus as they did in their hometowns.

The resettlement of Hmong refugees to the Midwest beginning in the mid-1970s was similar to that of Polish and Hungarian refugees escaping communism in eastern Europe in the 1950s. The resettlement apparatus shifted from helping Eastern Europeans to Southeast Asians after the end of failed U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia in 1975. Refugee resettlement operated as a partnership between the federal government, state and local governments and local voluntary organizations, most of which are religious, or faith based. The Midwest became a region for refugee resettlement due to the robust nature of religious institutions like Catholic Charities’ Refugee Resettlement in Milwaukee, the Catholic Charities Diocese of Des Moines, and the Minnesota Council of Churches Refugee Services in Minneapolis. In Wisconsin, the first Hmong refugee families arrived on January 31, 1976, sponsored by Catholic Charities Diocese and Lutheran Social Services.[5]

Immediately upon resettlement to Wisconsin, Hmong refugees faced racism and discrimination. Studies done in the 1980s found that discrimination against Hmong refugees included harassment and the perpetuation of racist stereotypes such as the eating of pets. For instance, Hmong families reported being constantly harassed on the phone, usually late at night, with obscene phone calls and people asking if they eat dog meat.[6] Hmong students and children were also called derogatory names outside of their homes. Rumors that Hmong ate dogs were commonplace, for example, in Eau Claire, local white residents alleged that Hmong homes contained freezers full of frozen dogs that prompted the circulation of tales about dog meat sandwiches being eaten by Hmong students.[7] Similarly, white residents in Wausau spread rumors that Hmong refugees had killed and ate all the wild ducks in the area and stole dogs to eat.[8] Hmong refugees were also often called “Chinese” and told to “go back to your country” by their white American neighbors.

Despite being U.S. born, the Hmong American alumni interviewed experienced similar forms of racism like those of their parents’ generation who arrived in the late 1970s and 1980s growing up and as students at UW–Madison. Spending much of her childhood in a small city on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, *Tang[9] recalls that her first visceral experience of noticing her racial difference was through an interaction with the grandmother of her white best friend in grade school. After meeting the grandmother at *Tang’s best friend’s house, *Tang says her best friend’s behavior changed. After much prodding, her best friend revealed that it wasn’t a good idea for *Tang to go over anymore because “My grandma says I shouldn’t have people like you over.” That moment, says *Tang, was “the first time I felt kind of different and alienated from others … I didn’t realize I could be judged in this way, too. I knew I could be judged by like, if I got [a] bad grade or if I had bad behavior … but I didn’t understand the skin part until then.” The effect of this incident was long lasting because she developed a sense of paranoia about how white people might perceive her. According to *Tang, “So, even now when people look at me, I feel like why, right. What about me right now is making you study me?” *Tang also had experiences of being “othered” inside the classroom when teachers pointed out her grammar as “weird” or asked her to pronounce and repeat things fifty times because they did not understand what she was saying.

*Sheng, another Hmong American alumnus, says that it was not until her family moved from California to a predominantly white suburb in the Twin Cities in Minnesota that she noticed the disadvantages of the racial and socioeconomic status of her family. She spent the first ten years of her life in a diverse, but poor, environment around other Asian Americans and Southeast Asian Americans, where she says, “It never occurred to me that we were poor … because we were living amongst other people who were poor or refugees … I never second-guessed my upbringing.” When her family moved to Minnesota, the neighborhood and school she attended was predominantly white and middle class. It was at school where she said “it was very clear to me that I was one the few people who had free lunch … So that was one of the clear markers for me in Minnesota, where in California I had never even—everyone was on free reduced lunch in California.” The lack of diversity meant Hmong were simultaneously the most visible minority but the least understood by the white community. This predominantly white environment also led to *Sheng developing internalized racism where she internalized the racist conceptions of Hmong as uneducated, “backwards and poor,” and reliant on social welfare.

Growing up in a predominantly white environment did not prepare *Siab for the “culture shock” of being in a diverse environment for the first time. *Siab grew up in Sheboygan where she mostly had white friends from grade school to high school. During her freshman year on campus, *Siab lived in the dorms where she had a Black roommate and Black Residential Assistants (RAs) that helped her become more comfortable talking about race and her racial identity. The summer of that first year, *Siab left Wisconsin for the first time, for a 3-month pre-med program for underrepresented students in Ohio. There she said she experienced “culture shock” because

All I saw my entire life were white people for the most part so I’m here [at the program] and I have people who are Muslim and Black students, and Vietnamese and just like a whole variety and I was so like shocked. My first instinct was to be like mom and dad, I want to come home, I don’t want to do this anymore. I ended up staying and I like met so many people and heard their stories and like this is the first time I could like relate to like other groups of students that like have similar backgrounds — whose parents did immigrate here, whose parents came from nothing, whose parents had to go back to school, whose parents literally like sacrificed everything for them to like to go college and who like didn’t really have anyone else tutor them growing up … — actually relatable people to me. People who would listen to me about my story because no one in Madison does that for sure. They don’t care here … It was just really cool and like you kind of like build mutual respect and sincere support for each other because you understand that it’s hard in this world when you’re not white, which was really nice.

Returning to UW–Madison for her sophomore year, *Siab says was “devastating” because something in her had changed. Her sophomore year did not go as well because she said she was “so busy distracting myself not like feel so out of place.” Things got bad enough to where *Siab considered transferring out of UW–Madison. It was a conversation and encouragement and guidance from her freshman year RA that convinced her to stay.

A black and white photo depicts five Chancellor’s Scholars posing in front of the Abraham Lincoln statue on Bascom Hill.
Chancellor’s Scholars graduating in 1993 from UW–Madison. Photo by Jeff Miller, courtesy UW Archives.

Much of the racism and discrimination Hmong American alumni experienced came in the form of microaggressions. For example, one instance that made *Tang’s body temperature rise due to anger was when a white male, at a ROTC formal event where *Tang was the only person of color sitting at that table, emphatically proclaimed at the end of a discussion on affirmative action, “Well, I just have one thing to say, I didn’t get here because of the color of my skin.” Alysia also reported receiving similar dismissive comments when she told people she was part of the Chancellor’s Scholars program, saying “they [mainly white students] talk about how they [chancellor’s scholars] got in just because they’re a minority, or they got into Madison just cause they’re a minority.” *Toua, another Hmong American student part of a scholarship program, said he “had a few instances where people, mainly people of European or Caucasian descent, said the only reason I got into the UW–Madison was because of my ethnicity or race and no other factors—just because they [the university] wanted to fill in minority acceptance rate or something at the UW.” Tiffany’s experience occurred in high school but continued to haunt her at UW–Madison and later in her professional career as well. In high school, Tiffany had a good white male friend in her English class. They often talked about how they both wanted to get into UW–Madison. When Tiffany told him that she had gotten accepted to UW–Madison, he responded, “You only got in because you’re a minority,” and stopped talking to her after. In reflecting on that experience, Tiffany says

Although I didn’t think too much about it, I think his voice, like every time like I’m on campus or like every time, like even still today like I got my master’s over at the U and now I’m a working adult, I still have his voice in my mind. His voice is always like, I still keep hearing like “you only got in because you’re a minority”. I feel like that every time, every achievement that I get, every opportunity that I get, I’m always constantly like second guessing myself like oh man, I probably only got this because I’m here to make people look cool, or I’m here to make the company look good or the school look good or something like that.

When asked about how it felt to be a Hmong student on the UW–Madison, Tiffany answered, “I feel like I was never heard,” within the Asian American student community as well as the students of color community. She felt like she had to “always … explain myself, explain my community and my culture to like even other Asian subgroups because like there’s a lot of stereotypes and so I felt like I always had to tell them “No, Hmong people are not like this” and this is our culture and stuff like that. Having to tell them that Hmong people are not from Mongolia.” In terms of being Hmong within the students of color community on campus when she says

And then also being a person of color in general as well too, there’s a lot of like you hear a lot of incidences that happen txhua xyoo (every year) on campus to like people of color and stuff like that. And when I try to share my experience, they’re like “Oh no, no this is not your time to share like how you feel”. Like yes, you’re a person of color too but this is not your time. And so, it’s just like okay, I want to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters of different backgrounds specifically like people who identify as people of color but then at the same time when I do try to share my experience, I feel like I’m being shut down. So yeah, that’s kind of how I felt as a Hmoob student on campus. Yeah, I felt like I was never heard.

Her frustrations with not being heard by the university, by the Asian American student community and the students of color community reflect the ongoing issue of how where and how do Asian Americans, including Hmong Americans, fit into the conversation of race on campus and in U.S. society. The conversation around race is often talked about within a Black-white binary which continues to render Asian American students and their struggles invisible.

Community Building Strategies: Finding “My” People

Hmong American students had to find their own ways of establishing a sense of belonging and finding community on a predominantly white campus. One strategy was to build that community for themselves by finding people, student organizations, and classes that would, in the words of *Tang, be

Somewhere I could be myself and speak my mind freely but in a safe space. And be able to relate to others and have others feel the same way back, also relate with me and just you know have a sense of community like “Oh I can belong here” or “Oh I can make a difference” … But mainly, the main thing was feeling comfortable and safe.

For *Tang, her community included student organizations like the Hmong American Student Association (HASA) and the Asian American Student Union (AASU) and the Center for Educational Opportunity (CEO).

Seven Hmong American students pose for a picture wearing traditional Laotian clothing at the Union Theater in Memorial Union.
The Hmong American Student Association (HASA) poses for a picture at 1999 Multicultural Orientation and Reception (MCOR) at the Union Theater in Memorial Union. Courtesy UW Archives.

For other students, like Kelly, they came to UW–Madison with friends they trusted and then expanded upon that community. Kelly’s process of building community on campus was utilizing people who were closest to him. For example, in his first year, he mainly hung out with his roommate, another Hmong student he knew from high school. Even though Kelly was not actively involved in student organizations his first year, his roommate was and because of that, Kelly had access and connection to other networks of people on campus. Kelly also had two good Somali friends who are Muslim that he knew prior to coming to UW–Madison. The trio of them had gone through the Summer Collegiate Experience (SCE) together the summer before their first year. As a result of these two friends, Kelly found community among the Muslim student community on campus and became acquainted with and learned to enjoy and appreciate the Multicultural Student Center (MSC). Being in the MSC exposed Kelly to the larger APIDA student community. During Kelly’s junior and senior years, he became actively involved (including taking leadership roles) within the Lao and Cambodian Student Association on campus. In Kelly’s own words, once he found his community and his people, he “stayed within what I was comfortable with or where I’ve gone that I liked.”

Community and a sense of belonging on campus was not something that all Hmong American alumni found readily. The constant microaggression on a predominantly white campus made it difficult for *Siab to find a consistent sense of community. She explains it as

I think it’s just like walking—it can be constantly walking into a room filled with people who don’t like look like you and like with backgrounds that are like extremely privileged that they don’t check. It’s like you do that over and over and over again and it’s like really hard … They’ll never get like what it’s like to work three jobs or what it’s like to send money back to your parents if they really need it. … Or like I was in a sociology class and we were talking about race one day and you could just—there was like 5 people of color in that class—you just could hear the white kids moan. It’s that—it’s those experiences that like really get to you. Umm, yeah. Ooof, man. It’s like it doesn’t happen just once. Those are the constant things that they don’t recognize because they’re the majority and when you’re there and you—like I said you become hyper aware to all these little things. It’s just a lot and it eats away at you every time it happens.

Even though *Sheng found meaningful community with other Hmong American students on campus, she was looking for deeper cross-cultural experiences and found that lacking at UW–Madison, remarking, “I think a lot of times my white counterparts didn’t know how to engage with people of color unless like the people of color were performing as white.” It was in her experiences studying abroad in places like South Korea and Kenya where she found what she was looking for, explaining

The best connections I’ve had with white college students were in my experiences abroad and it was with white college students who were not from the Midwest … I found what I was looking for when I was not in Madison, unfortunately. It was these experiences that I had because of Madison but ultimately the friendships that I made where I was able to share and be vulnerable about being a Hmong person and a Hmong woman it was with people who were actually not from Madison but who were very interested and invested in me … that was my experience.

Two students, dressed in traditional Laotian clothing, from the Hmong American Student Association stand and eat at 1999 Multicultural Orientation and Reception (MCOR) at Memorial Union.
Students from the Hmong American Student Association (HASA) at 1999 Multicultural Orientation and Reception (MCOR) at Memorial Union. Courtesy UW Archives.

While many acknowledged the quality of the education they received, they also highlighted the many ways in which the institution was not built for them to recognize them. And when the university does “recognize” APIDA students, *Siab notes, it is usually in the form of tokenization because of the model minority myth which itself is a racist idea that unfairly homogenizes all APIDA groups and experiences. These multiple layers of elision most keenly experienced by Hmong American alumni led many to feel what *Siab concluded, that “being Hmong, you don’t really have a place” on campus.[10] *Sheng summarizes her UW–Madison experience by saying,

Ultimately, like I’m really glad I chose Madison. I mean, it gave me all of the opportunities I had to be where I am today. But it could have been so much more if the space had been welcoming. And if Hmong students weren’t responsible for having to advocate on their own behalf or have to fight to explain why they were there and not seen as products of affirmative action.

The experiences of Hmong American alumni show what is possible despite the limitations of a place like UW–Madison. It is time for UW–Madison to stop sifting and winnowing the needs of their APIDA students and invest in more resources that would make them feel as if the promised Badger experience extended to APIDA students as well, beyond giving them a student ID number.


Individuals are not often taught to think of themselves as sources of historical knowledge, but they are. Individuals hold intimate knowledge of their campus, their neighborhoods, and their communities. That is why we want to hear from you. We believe that this project will be the most successful when it deeply engages all of those in our community. If you have a story to share, an event you think should be researched, or a person you think has been overlooked, please contact us. publichistoryproject@wisc.edu

[1] Many organizations and initiatives have emerged to respond to this reemergence of anti-Asian racism. One such effort is the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center was formed by the Asian Pacific Planning and Policy Council (A3PCON), Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University on March 19, 2020 to track and respond to the incidents of “hate, violence, harassment, discrimination, shunning, and child bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.” To learn more about what they do, including read their 2020–2021 National Report, visit their site: https://stopaapihate.org/

The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University San Bernardino has also compiled a factsheet on anti-Asian hate crimes reported to police in 16 of America’s largest cities in 2020. The report notes that while overall hate crimes dropped 7% in 2020, in the 16 cities included in the study, anti-Asian hate crime increased by 149%.

The issue of anti-Asian racism has also prompted a response and action from the White House. They have released a memorandum condemning racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as well as announcing additional actions to respond to the violence.

[2] Mai Zong Vue, Hmong in Wisconsin (Wisconsin: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2020), 52.

[3] Bailey B. Smolarek, Maineng Vang, and Matthew Wolfgram, “HMoob American Undergraduate Students at University of Wisconsin’s 4-Year Comprehensive Colleges—Background, Enrollment Statistics, and Graduation Trends (October 2019), Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, UW–Madison, (October 2019), 3.

[4] For Hmong American student-led research projects and findings on the experiences on Hmong American students and alumni, see the following studies: Weaving the Paj Ntaub  for Future Hmoob Students: A compiled collection of advice and The Necessity of Ethnic Studies: Prioritizing Ethnic Studies During COVID 19 and Beyond

[5] Mai Zong Vue, Hmong in Wisconsin (Wisconsin: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2020), 7.

[6] Most recently, in April of 2021, three teachers from Texas were recently placed on leave for asking middle school students to identify cultural norms in China. On the list was “eating cats and dogs.”

[7] Jo Ann Koltyk, New Pioneers in the Heartland: Hmong Life in Wisconsin (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998), 77.

[8] Jo Ann Koltyk, New Pioneers in the Heartland: Hmong Life in Wisconsin (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998), 78.

[9] Names with an *asterisk next to it are pseudonyms given to participants who have partially restricted access to their interview material.

[10] Quote (and title) are from an interview with a Hmong American alumnus.