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The Hmong Studies director at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh has been named an emerging scholar by Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

News of Mai See Thao’s selection was released Jan. 19 by the magazine. Scholars were chosen based on research, educational background, publishing record, teaching record, competitiveness of field of study, and uniqueness of field of study.

“I felt very honored that my hard work was being recognized and uplifted,” Thao said upon hearing she was named. “Sometimes you forget how much you’ve done until someone tells you that they see you, the work you’ve done, and the difference you’ve made.”

Thao began work in fall 2020 as UWO’s inaugural Hmong Studies director. She quickly built a solid foundation for the program and obtained full approval for the Hmong Studies certificate in her second year on the faculty.

“The approval was a pivotal moment in our University’s history, one that had been building momentum since the first Hmong students enrolled at UWO in the late 1970s,” wrote Alicia Johnson, former interim university diversity officer, in the nomination for the award.

Johnson also noted that Hmong students pushed for greater representation of students, staff, faculty and curriculum.

UWO junior Mikenzi Thao, of Appleton, said her goals that were “once only a dream” are now becoming reality since enrolling in Mai See Thao’s Hmong Studies courses—courses that examine the history of the Hmong through a critical trauma lens, going in depth of the systemic oppressions that have shaped the community.

“In taking these courses, you develop new knowledge and learn to understand more about the Hmong diaspora (dispersion of people from original homeland),” the student added. “I encourage my peers at UWO to enroll in these courses to learn more about the Hmong diaspora and to see your own dreams become a reality of accomplishments.”

Associate professor Jordan Karsten, chair of the anthropology, global religions and cultures department where Thao also serves as an assistant professor, said she is very deserving of the emerging scholar honor.

“In her short time at UWO, she has developed the Hmong Studies program with a rigorous curriculum that has attracted attention from across the country. Her scholarship is particularly impressive, especially her success in being awarded large and prestigious grants to continue her work with Hmong diaspora populations. There is no doubt UWO is lucky to have Mai See and the unique educational opportunities she provides students.”

Anne Stevens, dean of the College of Letters and Science, said she is proud of Thao and the recognition of her achievements.

“In creating and expanding the Hmong Studies program she is providing much needed curriculum to serve our region and positioning UWO as a national leader in the field of Hmong Studies,” Stevens said.

Growing the Hmong Studies program

Thao has continued to grow the program and requested funding so all ethnic studies programs could hire a second faculty member to reduce isolation and increase retention.

She is happy to report that they were able to make offers to two candidates.

“This is history in the making,” she said. “This is the first Hmong Studies program to ever have not only two but three Hmong Studies faculty. This is a historical moment for UWO and the academic field of Hmong Studies.”

She said increasing Hmong Studies faculty was a goal when she started. She is thrilled it happened as quickly as it did.

“Adding new faculty, for me, wasn’t just about growing but it was really about sustainability. How do we create something that lasts?”

Some of her goals are continuing to conduct research and planning and mapping for the future.

She’ll work on applying for additional grants, work with community partners to develop quest courses, as well as focus on student recruitment and developing an online course offering.

“I’ve been asked by many students across the country if they could take my courses,” she said. “I really think we can make that happen now that there’s more than just me with expertise in Hmong Studies.”

She hinted that there may be study abroad to Southeast Asia sometime in the future.

Thao is a medical anthropologist with research interests in historical trauma, displacement, the refugee body, biopolitics and care (long-term care and chronic disease management).

While completing her dissertation at the University of Minnesota, she examined Hmong American experiences of type II diabetes and the implications of chronic care for a displaced community. Situating chronic disease management within a Hmong and U.S. historical and racial context, Thao examined how politics of belonging are central in caring for health and wellbeing.

Thao infuses community-based participatory action research with her anthropological training.

She currently is leading a community-based traveling exhibit that centers Hmong experiences of historical trauma and hope.

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