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Don't Leave Your Life at the Door: Ntxhais Hmoob of St. Kate's
Ntxhais Hmoob (Hmong Daughters) of St. Kate's brings together Hmong students at St. Catherine University's College for Women. The group has grown from eight students when it formed in April 2007 to sixty-two at the first monthly gathering of 2009-10. Building on members' strengths and on culturally grounded values, Ntxhais Hmoob fosters a community-based approach to women's leadership development. In addition to supporting each other's academic success, group members have become a force for community building within and beyond the university.
Ntxhais Hmoob of St. Kate’s members successfully raised enough money to send eighteen students to the 2009 Hmong National Development conference in Appleton, Wisconsin. Photo by Sia Vang.
Ntxhais Hmoob's community-based approach challenges longstanding traditions of individualism in academe. While Ntxhais Hmoob of St. Kate's helps students succeed within a system that rewards individual achievement, it also looks beyond personal advancement to sustainable, justice-oriented change. Ntxhais Hmoob provides a strategy for engaging students in leadership for the common good.
As Jayne Brownell and Lynn Swaner point out in their literature review of high-impact educational practices (2009), reports on learning communities often lack specificity. What, really, do we mean by a community-based approach within higher education? At the St. Catherine Center for Women, our model for women's leadership development has four key components: attention to group history, engagement with students' lives beyond the university, collaboration, and community engagement. While the four components are related, each contributes to a different aspect of community for members of Ntxhais Hmoob.
Shared Group History
Knowing about the Hmong experience in Laos and in the United States is crucial to understanding students' identities and contexts. Since the early 1970s, Hmong people have emigrated from Southeast Asia to escape persecution in response to their involvement as U.S. allies in the Vietnam War. During the war, the CIA secretly recruited Hmong men and boys, thousands of whom lost their lives in the conflict. Many more died while fleeing their homelands through the mountains of Laos after U.S. forces left the region (Yang 2008). Most of those who lived went to refugee camps in Thailand, then to the United States or other allied countries. Although the resettlement scattered Hmong people throughout the world, many families reassembled in their new countries.
In the United States, the largest Hmong populations are in California, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Carolinas. Today nearly fifty thousand Hmong people live in the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Daughters of these Hmong immigrant families--first- and second-generation Hmong Americans--are the members of Ntxhais Hmoob of St. Kate's. Most of the group's members are enrolled in the baccalaureate day program and live with their families. Their parents' and grandparents' sacrifices during and after the war have an enduring influence on their lives and decisions.
Life Beyond the University
|Resources on the Hmong Community|
Faculty and student services professionals who work with Hmong students might benefit from consulting the following resources:
"Don't leave your life at the door" is a powerful guiding message for Ntxhais Hmoob. When the Center for Women's staff meets with students, we are keenly aware that they bring their lived experiences with them. We acknowledge this by getting to know who they are, what their interests are, and how the center can help them. We also share our lived experiences (Sia was a first-generation Hmong student at St. Kate's). Rather than simply answering students' questions, we want to make genuine connections and let students know that we want them to succeed.
This personal approach to students' lives guides how the group operates as well. Each student brings unique perspectives, skills, and talents to the table. At the same time, Hmong students share many experiences, including the sense of living in two worlds that have different and sometimes conflicting expectations. Many students have important responsibilities within their families, and balancing those commitments with the demands of college can be overwhelming. Those who are first-generation college students must also devote time and energy to learning the systems of higher education and explaining those systems to family members. With such challenges, it is easy for students to become discouraged and leave school. Supportive networks that recognize students' outside contexts are essential to student success.
Even as it recognizes the conflicts and challenges Hmong St. Kate's students face, Ntxhais Hmoob also builds on their sources of strength. While students face patriarchal traditions within Hmong culture (as in U.S. society), Hmong culture also provides women with sources of strength that the group recognizes and honors. Hmong people have a long communal history, and even in new environments, communal values have persisted. Grounded in this shared culture, Ntxhais Hmoob provides important leadership in challenging individualism and building community. Applying Hmong communal values to an American university is a complex endeavor with great potential, and one expression of this is Ntxhais Hmoob's approach to collaborative leadership.
In the Center for Women, we try to create an atmosphere that resists hierarchical domination and values collaborative leadership among students, faculty, and staff. The story of Ntxhais Hmoob's creation speaks to these values. In March 2007, Deep Shikha, chair of the economics department, approached Sia to discuss the challenges Hmong students in her classes were experiencing. That discussion led Sia to contact Chuayi Yang, assistant director of Multicultural and International Programs and Services, and to coordinate the group's first gathering in April of that year. After meeting a few times, group members voted to name the group Ntxhais Hmoob of St. Kate's, suggesting in two languages that members are daughters of the Hmong community as well as daughters of the university.
While initiated and supported by the center, the group is student driven. Energy at group meetings has ranged from lighthearted to painfully raw as students discuss their educational goals and experiences, identify areas of concern, and share tools and strategies for success in all avenues of life. Ntxhais Hmoob's leadership structure reflects a fluid, collaborative approach. The group has decided not to have a president and other officers, so different members step forward to lead particular projects and meetings. Members also engage in peer mentoring to support each other's leadership development.
Ntxhais Hmoob aims to build a strong network of Hmong students while reaching out to other student populations and contributing to the wider community. Members have hosted study sessions throughout the campus, held informal and formal gatherings to connect with Hmong and non-Hmong students, volunteered at community events, and organized service projects. Ntxhais Hmoob has also made connections to local and national Hmong women leaders by becoming members of the Twin Cities' Professional Hmong Women Association (PHWA). Such activities have helped students to gain a deeper understanding of their place in the world, with a consistent grounding in community values. Cultural expectations that have been sources of conflict with students' university lives are now also sources of leadership, as Ntxhais Hmoob members thrive together and direct their talents toward community well-being.
Brownell, J. E. and L. E. Swaner. 2009. Outcomes of high-impact educational practices: A literature review. Diversity and Democracy 12(2): 4-6. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Yang, K. K. 2008. The latehomecomer: A Hmong family memoir. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press.
Sia Vang is a program coordinator; Sharon Doherty is an associate professor of women's studies and director, both at the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women, St. Catherine University (St. Paul, Minnesota).