“What kind of Asian are you?”: Institutional invisibility of the HMoob American College Paj Ntaub

“As an Asian American student, I am always asked, ‘What kind of Asian are you?’ When I respond, ‘HMoob,’ I’m asked, ‘What’s HMoob? What country is that?’ But HMoob do not fit the construct of the nation-state. We are an ethnicity not a nationality. Many of my peers do not understand this. For instance, I attended an event focused on the need for more inclusion of all Asian American students on campus. One group leader suggested that we have a map for students to pin the country where they came from. Everyone was excited and agreed to the idea. But I stayed silent because my ethnic group, the HMoob, do not have a country on a map that they can say is theirs. This made me feel very sad and conflicted. I have never felt so alienated from the ‘Asian’ category that society places me under.”

– A member of the Paj Ntaub research team

For centuries, the HMoob have been made invisible as a marginalized and stateless group of people. Before HMoob were refugees and resettled around the world in the mid-1970’s, they struggled for political legitimacy and faced exclusion under dominant imperial powers, such as the Chinese and the French. Even the bloodshed of the HMoob who fought on behalf of the United States in the Laotian Civil War was kept a secret from the whole world and remains largely unrecognized today.

We are finding in our research that the trauma and experience of this invisibility continues for HMoob American students at UW-Madison. We have identified several institutional processes which obfuscate HMoob American student experiences and identities by misrepresenting and thus, rendering them invisible to the institution.[1] In this blog we focus on the aggregation of institutional data as a form of institutional invisibility that erases HMoob American identity and experiences. 

Institutional research and institutional invisibility  

HMoob Americans are the largest Asian American group in Wisconsin. From 1990 to 2010, the HMoob American population in Wisconsin more than doubled (from 16,373 to 47,127).[2] The top five counties with the highest HMoob American population are Milwaukee, Marathon, Sheboygan, Dane and Brown. The HMoob American population in Wisconsin is also relatively young; 43 percent of HMoob Americans in Wisconsin are under the age of 18 compared to 23 percent of the state’s total population. Despite these significant population numbers, the majority of data regarding the education of HMoob American students in K-12 and higher education settings is aggregated with other Asian population, leaving HMoob American students institutionally invisible.

UW-Madison does not publicly report any disaggregated data about its HMoob American students. The Data Digests and other reports produced by the Office of Academy Planning and Institutional Research include HMoob American students as a “targeted minority,” under the category of “Southeast Asians,” which group HMoob Americans with Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian American students. The institutional invisibility of HMoob American students is especially problematic because HMoob Americans are the largest Asian American community in the state. UW-Madison does not commonly disaggregate this data for its own purposes. However, while race/ethnic identification is not required, UW-Madison began offering “Hmong” as a category that students could self-identify on their undergraduate applications beginning in 2006. 

Because of the lack of analysis, our research team requested the raw disaggregated data concerning HMoob American students from the Academic Planning and Institutional Research office and the Center for Academic Excellence.[3] We argue that disaggregating and analyzing such data can increase the institutional visibility of HMoob American students to better serve their social and educational needs. For example, the Madison Metropolitan School District disaggregated HMoob American students in 2013.[4] This enhanced visibility by the district was followed by additional funding to support students’ educational attainment through programs such as the Hmong Language and Cultural Enrichment Program. We argue that the disaggregation of data by higher education institutions has the potential to increase institutional visibility—and thus, counter the processes that make minoritized students’ experiences institutionally invisible. And in this way, the disaggregation of student data in educational settings can become a critical act. In the following section, we provide descriptive statistics of some of our most significant findings from the disaggregated data concerning HMoob American students at UW-Madison.

HMoob American Undergraduates at UW-Madison

Based on the disaggregated data collected by our research team, we found crucial information about demographics, educational attainment rates, and types of academic support for HMoob American students served by the university. There have consistently been over 200 HMoob American students enrolled at UW-Madison since 2010. The majority of these students are from Wisconsin (93%), with the largest number of students coming from Dane, Marathon, and Milwaukee counties. Five percent of HMoob American students are from Minnesota, and two percent are from other states. There have been approximately seven to eight new transfer students each year since 2007, with the majority transferring from Madison College or UW-Marathon County. These numbers are not surprising given that Marathon County has one of the largest HMoob American populations. Moreover, the concentration of HMoob American undergraduates coming from Dane and Milwaukee County is clearly related to the PEOPLE Scholars program’s effort to recruit HMoob American students from the Madison and Milwaukee area.

We found that 68% of HMoob American students graduate within 6 years, but we were unable to obtain clear data indicating graduation rates based on freshmen or transfer cohorts. In addition to differences in class and educational background, the majority of HMoob American students identify as female (63%). In terms of academic demographics, the most popular majors for HMoob American students from 2007-08 to 2017-18 were Biology (71) and Human Development and Family Studies (43). Asian studies[5] ranked fourth highest with 26 declared majors at graduation during that same time period.

Given that the majority of HMoob American students at UW-Madison are first-generation (79%), it is important to provide them institutional support. Sixty-three percent of HMoob American students are affiliated with the Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievements (DDEEA) and/or the Center for Academic Excellence (CAE) programs. Service programs within DDEEA and CAE include pre-college, transitional, scholarship, and/or academic and social support. These programs are designed to support first-generation, low-income, and historically marginalized college students.

While these data offer important insights on who HMoob American students at UW-Madison are, these findings generate more questions than answers. Why are HMoob American students drawn to these majors? What kinds of support do these programs have and how are current students being supported within each program? What kinds of academic and social support does DDEEA and CAE offer students? Where (physically and academically) do students spend the majority of their time? More importantly, how do students think about and make sense of their educational experiences at UW-Madison? The qualitative portion of our study which we described in a previous blog will further explore these inquiries.

Experiencing institutional invisibility

Beyond statistical inquiries, our preliminary findings suggest that the institutional invisibility HMoob American students experience results in inadequate resources and advocacy for HMoob American students and increases encounters with racism. For example, the limited knowledge about HMoob American’s history and culture results in the tokenization and exotification of HMoob American students. Our participants reported that when their peers and instructors do not know who the HMoob are, they are forced to take on the responsibility of teaching them HMoob history and culture. Many of our participants also shared that HMoob American students are assumed to be Chinese or another Asian group.

In the interviews we conducted, students revealed experiencing and/or witnessing racial micro- and macro-aggressions particularly in classrooms, residence halls, and on State Street. Despite students’ accounts of racial discrimination on the UW campus, HMoob American students seldom reported their experiences in the official bias reporting system created by the Division of Student Life. In turn, underreporting among HMoob American students suggests that they are unaffected by racial discrimination. The university’s reliance on this official system to gauge the “campus climate” fails to capture the struggles and discrimination that HMoob American students face. The invisibility that HMoob American students experience poses problems for the creation of safe spaces and academic programming for HMoob American students.

The continued invisibility of HMoob American students at UW-Madison is sustained by the academic curriculum. Although HMoob Americans make up the largest Asian American population in the state of Wisconsin, their history, language, and culture are absent from the curriculums. There is only one course at UW-Madison that focuses specifically on HMoob Americans’ history, culture, and contemporary issues.[6] A second course on HMoob refugee experiences is offered on a contingent basis.[7] Some courses in the Asian American studies and Southeast Asian studies programs do include short units on HMoob history and culture. This material, however, is ubiquitously presented within an American Cold War framework, focused on the HMoob’s involvement in U.S. imperialism and their subsequent displacement, which omits the contemporary experiences of HMoob Americans. Participants also explained that these courses also subsume HMoob American experiences with other Asian Americans. Thus, the narratives and histories of more dominant Asian ethnic groups erases HMoob people’s unique history and contributions.

Moving forward: Presenting “Our HMoob American College Paj Ntaub”

To learn more about our research on the sociocultural and instructional factors that affect HMoob American college students, attend our presentation and discussion of the research at noon, February 1, 2019, in the Wisconsin Idea Room (Education Building, Room 159). A delicious lunch will be provided!


The CCWT Paj Ntaub research team is comprised of Lena Lee, Pangzoo Lee, Myxee Thao, Kia Vang, Odyssey Xiong, Pa Kou Xiong, Pheechai Xiong, and their research mentors, Bailey Smolarek, Matthew Wolfgram, and Choua Xiong.

[1] On the concept of institutional invisibility see, Borromeo, V. (2018). A Phenomenological Inquiry into the Racialized Experiences of Southeast Asian American Community College Students. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; Wallitt, R. (2008). Cambodian Invisibility: Students Lost between the “Achievement Gap” and the “Model Minority”. Multicultural Perspectives, 10(1), 3-9.

[2] Applied Population Laboratory and UW Extension. (2015). Hmong in Wisconsin: A Statistical Overview. Retrieved from: https://apl.wisc.edu/publications/hmong_chartbook_2010.pdf

[3] Academic Planning and Institutional Research. (2018). Hmong students enrollment and degree information. Excel. UW Madison; Center for Academic Excellence. (2018). Statistics on Hmong students from CAE. Excel. UW Madison.

[4] Madison Metropolitan School District. (2016-17). Mobility and Demographics Reports. Retrieved from: https://accountability.madison.k12.wi.us/reports#assessments

[5] The dataset obtained from the Office of Academy Planning and Institutional Research indicated that the major was “Asian Studies”. UW has a few Asian Studies certificate and this description is unclear whether this major was Asian American Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, East Asian Studies, or South Asian Studies.

[6] Asian American Studies 540: Hmong American Social Movements of the 20th and 21st Century

[7] Asian American Studies 240: Hmong Refugee History