Connecting students, academia, and community: Hmong Voices Series as a place of dialogue

Dr. Kao-Ly Yang, Coordinator of the Hmong Studies Program

According to 2010 Census data, California has the largest Hmong population in the nation, and Fresno has the largest concentration in the state. At Fresno State, Hmong students make up 6% of the undergraduate student population. 

Since the Hmong minor’s establishment in Fall 2016, more than 100 students have enrolled. Students come from all kinds of majors for a variety of reasons: to communicate with their family and elderly, to hone the language as a professional skill for job opportunities, to interpret, among other reasons. 

Most of all, the Hmong minor has allowed for the Hmong Studies program to become a place of belonging–a kind of home for students.

“After taking a few classes in Hmong, I started to feel like I belong–I started to understand my own culture, my own heritage,” said Dustin Vang in a recent ABC30 interview.

Dr. Kao-Ly Yang, advisor of the Hmong minor, explained how the program has helped many students reflect and reconnect with their heritage.

“The conversational exchanges and pedagogical approaches used to teach the Hmong language, culture, or current issues give them opportunities to express their curiosity, concerns, and dreams. Furthermore, they can get help, support, and encouragement to not drop college and to find peers to guide them to navigate Fresno State.”

The Hmong Voices Series serves as another avenue to strengthen these points. Before its creation, guest speakers and experts were only heard in advanced Hmong courses, and their appearances were limited depending on the availability, timing, and relevance to course topics. When Hmong students expressed wishes for more speakers who could add their perspectives to current issues, traditional culture, and arts, Dr. Yang decided to organize the series for the 2017-2018 academic year. 

With all the Hmong instructors being only part-time faculty with limited time and resources, the first year was a test trial to see if the larger community had any interest and whether the series could be sustainable in the long run.

It was packed with diverse speakers, starting with Dr. Kou Yang, a prominent professor, and writer. Then Lar Yang, a film director, and designer, had a visit. Students from the Hmong Language Club spoke about the Hmong “Lusheng” (qeej). Tha Cha spoke about his experiences as a medical doctor and shaman. Tou Ly VangKhue, a singer icon, spoke about his inspirations and performed. The final event had nurses and nursing students share insights on entering the field. 

The positive reception and high attendance attested to the urgency and relevance of the series. In the past, the Hmong community had felt disarray, confusion, and powerlessness during hard times. The series then served as a neutral place for discussion and dialogue for a better understanding of relevant issues where different perspectives can contribute to the well-being of the students and the community. 

“They say ‘it takes a village’ and the Hmong Voices Series is proof of this,” said Dr. Honora Chapman, interim dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. “Dr. Yang has done an incredible job collaborating with our colleagues across campus to create a remarkably interdisciplinary speaker series that provides everyone on campus and in the community opportunities for growth in our awareness about issues in the Hmong community in the Valley and beyond.”

The permanence of the series came in a timely manner as a 2019 Fresno State report showed that Hmong students struggled more intensely than other students and felt less certain about their academic readiness. Students had been able to present their works or host workshops–an aspect of the series that allowed students to grow as researchers. The series also aimed to boost the development and study of Hmong culture, languages, literature, arts, and recruit interested students. 

The successful first year caught the attention of Dr. Delritta Hornbuckle, the Dean of Henry Madden Library, who sponsored the following year. It became a collective effort of several faculty, staff and members, especially Vang Vang, senior Librarian; Leepao Khang and Chia Thao, lecturers of the Department of Public Health; Mai Yer Vang; nursing students from Fresno City College; officers of the Hmong Language club and members of the Hmong Voices Series Advisory Board.

“This kind of holistic approach is exactly what is needed to build bridges of understanding as well as improvements in everyone’s daily life,” said Chapman.

The series continued to grow with more speakers addressing cultural topics like “The Meaning of Hmong Weddings” to addressing the literary arts, bringing the poets Pos Moua and Dr. Kou Yang. 

“Let’s explore the Hmong issues by discussing and exchanging ideas,” said Dr. Yang. “Critical minds free the spirits. Knowledge empowers and freedom lies on the courage to question traditions and to seek in-depth understanding.”

For more information, contact Dr. Kao-Ly Yang or call at 559-278-2456. 

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2021 Graduate of Fresno State's MFA Creative Writing program, focused in Creative Nonfiction. Hmong American writer.

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