An Ethnic Community's Involvement Leads to a First in Faculty Hiring

U. of Wisconsin at Madison

Yang Sao Xiong
January 27, 2014

A chance to do research in the active Hmong community in and around Madison drew Yang Sao Xiong from Los Angeles to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he will become the nation’s first tenure-track professor in Hmong-American studies next August.

Mr. Xiong, with one foot in the Asian-American-studies program and the other in the School of Social Work, will conduct fieldwork in Madison, the rest of Dane County, and other parts of Wisconsin to study contemporary social issues among Hmong-Americans, including poverty, public policy, and health. He has already begun some of that research, as a postdoctoral fellow at Madison this year.

Wisconsin is an ideal place to do Hmong-American studies, Mr. Xiong says, because of the number of Hmong-Americans there “who are passionate about doing community work and combating social injustice.”

Mr. Xiong spent 10 years studying sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he earned his Ph.D. last June.

He focused his research on assimilation of immigrant groups—particularly Hmong—in the United States. The Hmong are an ethnic minority group who fled Laos in large numbers after the Vietnam War ended.

Mr. Xiong’s parents, who immigrated to California from a Thailand refugee camp, helped inspire the course of his research, he says.

At the Madison flagship, Mr. Xiong plans to focus his research on how the physical and mental health of Hmong-Americans in Wisconsin is affected by social-support systems like work, nonprofit organizations, family, and kinship groups.

The needs of the community will influence Mr. Xiong’s research agenda.

Mr. Xiong “fit the academic expectations of the university and the contemporary social issues of the community,” says Lynet Uttal, who directed the Asian-American studies program at Madison from 2008 to 2013. “To me, he was the home run in what we were looking for in this position,” she says.

The Hmong community’s involvement at Madison began more than 20 years ago, after some Hmong-Americans began talking with university officials about improving the teaching of the history and culture of their ethnic group.

Wisconsin is the state with the third-largest Hmong population in the country, consisting of about 50,000 residents, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. Despite their numbers, Hmong-Americans remain “one of the most misunderstood ethnic groups,” Mr. Xiong said.

For instance, in 2007, controversy erupted at the university after a law-school professor made remarks about conflicts between Hmong culture and the legal system that some people in and outside his class deemed offensive. The incident at the law school made international news and prompted a dialogue between university administrators and Wisconsin’s Hmong community.

After the incident, the university's College of Letters & Science allocated funds to the Asian-American-studies program to host speakers and hire visiting faculty members in Hmong-American studies. Ms. Uttal worked to help establish the university-community partnership whose activities eventually led to the hiring of Mr. Xiong.

Peng Her, an organizer in Madison’s Hmong community, says that “culturally responsive learning,” the idea that students who are aware of their backgrounds perform better academically and in their careers, has informed the community’s involvement. “It is important for the flagship university to lead this movement,” he says.

Both Ms. Uttal and Mr. Xiong say they hope to see Madison continue to lead  
scholarship in Hmong-American studies.

Corrections (2/14/2014, 5:34 p.m.): This article originally said that the University of Wisconsin had allocated funds to Lynet Uttal, the Asian-American-studies program’s then-director, to respond to the concerns of the Hmong community. The university’s College of Letters & Science actually allocated funds to the program, not to Ms. Uttal, to host speakers and hire visiting faculty members. The original article also said that Ms. Uttal and Mr. Xiong hoped to see a Hmong-American-studies program at the university; their hope is rather that the institution will lead scholarship in the field. The article has been updated to reflect those corrections.