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Dreams for a Hmong studies director at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh became reality this fall with the hiring of Mai See Thao, who got right to work.

Hmong student leaders have advocated for a Hmong studies certificate program, which Thao said she is hoping to get approval for within the next year or two. She also would like to connect UWO’s Hmong Studies Program with others in the UW System.

Currently, UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Eau Claire have Hmong studies in place. Because the field is still relatively small, each program has its own specialty tied to the background of the director who runs it.

Thao said she is the second Hmong medical anthropologist who has examined experiences of refugeeism and displacement in the body. Teaching a special topics course through distance learning would provide other UW institutions access to these kinds of teachings not present at their university.

Thao, in her interview for the position, was impressed when she saw leaders at the UWO exhibit passion and a desire to invest in a new Hmong Studies Program.

Thao most recently served as the postdoctoral fellow and instructor with the Center for Healthy Communities and Research in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She earned a doctorate in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and her a bachelor’s in anthropology and certificate in Asian American studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

You joined UW Oshkosh in August. What have you been working on during these early months in your new role?

Joining UWO during a pandemic has indeed been interesting but I have met wonderful and supportive colleagues who have been very instrumental in helping me build the program.

I’ve been able to draft a program proposal because of the work faculty and staff members have already put into the creation of my position. My first month consisted of connecting with other program directors, chairs and faculty who think it is important to build Hmong studies components into their courses as well. My main goal is to push out the program proposal and get approval for the certificate. I have also been busy teaching my course Memory and Trauma virtually, asynchronous on Tuesdays and a synchronous discussion on Thursdays.

What are your hopes and plans for the Hmong Studies Program?

I say I inherited this position, because it’s important for me to recognize the student activism and their spirit in this program. They organized to bring my position into fruition with the hopes that the Hmong Studies Program would develop into a certificate, minor and with the possibility of a major. I am tasked with that legacy to make Hmong studies possible. So, my plans are currently to establish a Hmong Studies Certificate, to develop enough coursework that the Hmong Studies Certificate can grow and advocate for more Hmong faculty hires in other departments.

To accomplish the growth of Hmong studies, I plan to teach others about its value. It is not just a particular study on a particular ethnic group. Hmong Studies provides a lens into challenging our larger, taken-for-granted understandings of the world.

Hmong studies allows us to understand the impact of larger forces like imperialism, colonialism and displacement by way of how these forces have shaped Hmong in the diaspora. Hmong studies also allows us to examine the intersectionality of race, gender and power and how they come together to shape different experiences and outcomes.

What will the curriculum for Hmong studies look like?

Currently in my proposal, the curriculum for Hmong studies will entail a 12-credit requirement. Six credits (two classes) from core Hmong studies courses, which will be Introduction to Hmong Studies and Theoretical Foundations to Hmong Studies.

The other six credits will be from elective courses taught in other departments at UWO with 50% content or more in Hmong studies. Currently these classes are: Elementary/Secondary Ed 353 Hmong Language, Culture and Learning; Women’s and Gender Studies 226 QIII Saving Seeds, Saving Community; Sociology 342 Social Ecology; and Religious Studies 358 Asian Religions in the Diaspora. I am currently teaching a special topics course in anthropology that I hope will be a Hmong studies course, Memory and Trauma.

Who should consider enrolling?

Hmong studies is for all students because of its interdisciplinary development (anthropology, Asian-American studies, critical race studies, critical refugee studies, history, social work, public health, legal studies, sociology, education, and more). It is for the student who observes the current moment (pandemic and growing racial tensions) and is provoked by questions about how to contextualize what they are seeing. It is for the student who wants to consider other ways of thinking about the world. It is for the student who wants to find more inclusive solutions to working with diverse communities.

Students who take Hmong studies will be asked to be reflexive and to situate what they are experiencing within a larger frame of analysis by being trained about the social, political and cultural factors that impact Hmong experiences. Students also will gain familiarity in theories on racialization, decolonialism, transnationalism and displacement―theories that are deeply connected to others beyond Hmong studies.

What drew you to the UW Oshkosh position?

I am the byproduct of Hmong American student activism that resulted in the creation of the first Hmong studies visiting assistant professor position at UW-Madison. If it was not for that exposure at the undergraduate level, I would not have understood how to engage in Hmong studies in my Ph.D. training in anthropology. What drew me to UWO was the recognition that these courses are the building blocks to growing the field in Hmong studies.

My time at the Medical College of Wisconsin, where I partnered with Hmong community organizations to conduct research on Hmong health disparities, also taught me about just how timely this position is. The Hmong community in Wisconsin is ready and excited for these kinds of partnerships because they have experienced so much invisibilization due to the lack of Hmong studies faculty teaching and conducting research on Hmong experiences in Wisconsin.

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