Research on Hmong-Americans started emerging in the late 1980s (Conquegood, 1989; Hendricks, et al, 1986; Quincy, 1988 & 1994) and continues to flourish to the present (Hamilton-Merrit, 1993 & 1999; Hutchinson, 1997; Lo, 2001; Timm, 1994; Thao, 1999); Vang, 2005; Yang, 1993). Topics studied range from family dynamics and cultural transitions to student achievement and challenges.
Little research has been conducted specifically on Hmong college students (Bosher, 1997; Depouw, 2003; McClain-Ruelle & Xiong, 2005; Root, et al, 2003; Su, 2005; Swirkowski, 1997). More extensive and comprehensive research on the Hmong student experiences has been done at the pre-k-12 level (Hutchinson, 1997 ; Timm, 1994 ; Vang, 1993; Walker, 1989).
In the early 1980s, Hmong students began to enter the University of Wisconsin (UW) System (Druke, 2000, personal communication). Statistics from the UW Office of Educational Policy and Analysis (2007) showed 8,316 Southeast Asian students attending the 13 four-year UW campuses, with 46 percent (3,773) degree completions from 1989-1999. Since the UW System does not break down the Asian/Southeast Asian categories by ethnicity, data on the number of Hmong students attending and graduating is unavailable.
The Census 2000: Data Analysis provides more specifics about Hmong educational attainments (Pfeiffer, 2003). According to Yang and Pfeiffer, disparities occur between Hmong levels of educational attainments versus other U.S. populations: (1) 27 percent of the Hmong population has a high school diploma versus 49.7 of the general U.S. population; (2) 11.7 percent of the Hmong population has an associate or bachelor's degree versus 21.9 percent of the U.S. population; and (3) 1.5 percent of the Hmong population has a master's degree versus 8.9 percent of the U.S. population. One question impends that the statistics do not reveal: what key life experiences contributed to Hmong college students' matriculation, retention, and graduation from college?
In conducting this research and constructing a theory about Hmong college students' matriculation, retention, and graduation from college, I have examined key life experiences of 18 Hmong graduates from the UW System. Based on the evidence from in-depth interviews, participants identified five clusters of key life experiences. These clusters include:
1. Supportive family environment;
2. Social and academic support in a formal education environment;
3. Life lessons: embracing hardships and challenges;
4. Vision and drive for success that includes a college education; and
5. Financial support.
Narrative inquiry and interpretive approaches were employed, providing a methodological approach for understanding people's representation of the world, and actions in it, through the stories they tell (Gomez, in press) where meaning was open for negotiation. The participants and the researcher engaged in a reflective process to interpret the meaning of the individual viewpoints (Hmong college students' voices) and how these viewpoints of past and present experiences provided rich descriptions of the Hmong college students' experiences. Grounded theory was also utilized to maximize flexibility of data collection and analysis. The grounded theory approach requires the researcher to derive a theory by using "multiple stages of data collection" and "constant data comparison" (Creswell, p.12).
The study participants were purposely selected. They were first generation Hmong college graduates from several University of Wisconsin campuses, during the period 1995 to 2001. Letters were sent inviting 50 potential participants. The response rate included 18 returned letters indicating willingness to participate in the study.
I then called and scheduled interviews with participants. Interview protocol was shared with each participant, including the questions that would be asked. Three pilot interviews were conducted with non-participants who were first-generation Hmong college graduates.
The 18 participants represented a wide range of different academic disciplines and universities. The age of participants ranged from 24 to 40. Participants' academic disciplines included business administration, political science, criminal justice, graphic arts, public administration, Spanish, elementary education, social work, advertising and public relations, accounting, radio/TV/film, urban and regional studies, mathematics, geography, and biology and chemistry.
Interviews lasted from 45 minutes to an hour and 30 minutes. Saturation of information was obtained when information given by the interviewee became redundant. During the interviews, I clarified, confirmed, and validated responses given by participants before moving on with more questions.
The questionnaires covered elementary, secondary, and post-secondary educational experiences as well as social, economic, and educational backgrounds, professional and personal challenges, and any unique life experiences that may have influenced their matriculation and graduation from college. Participants were asked to contact me if additional information needed to be shared.
All interviews were audiotaped (with permission) and field notes were taken. The interviews were transcribed verbatim. The interviewees spoke for the majority of the interviewing sessions, as I listened intently, seeking to identify emergent themes. The field notes provide "color" of the nuances and subtleties that cannot be heard on an audiotape and maybe missed when relying solely on memory.
Throughout the interviewing process, interpretations, questions, and findings were shared with each participant for reciprocal meaning, clarification, and discussion. Interviews, field notes, and participant observations were analyzed and refined between cases and within cases. Emerging themes were utilized to guide or refine the research process until data saturation was reached.
Experiences of a Supportive Family
Participants cringed when reporting that college life is not entertaining and coasting, as they had expected. They experienced difficult challenges and times, academically, culturally, and socially. Many participants were discouraged and deflated when they put in a lot of time studying and still came up short on examinations and assignments. The struggle to understand course materials and concepts due to language and cultural barriers was described as exhausting, and at times undermined their abilities. As a result, their education sometimes became a secondary priority, as they sought to hold their lives together. They reported contemplating dropping out of college and finding employment.
Even in these challenging times, according to the study participants, having a supportive family played a significant role in staying the course. Contributing family members included parents, siblings, and other immediate family members.
Parental support came in the form of encouragement, childcare, financial assistance, and spiritual and emotional healing. Encouragement included storytelling about life struggles in Laos and Thailand, emphasizing the importance of education, and the occasional drop-in visits, phone calls, and small but significant monetary gifts. In their own words:
Participant 1: They [my parents] think I was responsible and mature. They gave me much freedom. I stayed in the dorm and only went home during Christmas breaks or when they closed down the dorms. They told me what to do and at times, even though I disagreed with them, I took things into my hands and was responsible. They weren't controlling me. My parents were success-oriented. They always stressed doing well in my classes. They made certain you got your work done.
Participant 2: [My parents] were always telling how, now that we are in the United States and that we have the opportunity to get an education, we should take advantage of it, something that you could not have even if they wanted to back in Laos. So yes, they have always pounded that unto me. Go to school, go to school, do well. It was always something like that that came up. To me, education was second nature because of that.
Participant 3: My parents had always pressured us and drilled in our heads that education is the key to success. My parents didn't speak any English, so it was really hard for them to help us with our homework. But they always wanted to make sure that we get our homework done. They'll tell us to go study although they never checked on us. They always stressed education. My parents told us that education was important.
Participant 4: Just as you started to wonder if they have forgotten you, the phone rang and it was my dad asking how I was doing. It felt wonderful just to hear his voice from home. Sometimes they would stop by to visit when they are visiting a relative nearby. They dropped off food and gave me some money. It wasn't much but it was the gesture and showing that they still care. That helped me.
Participant 5: I had several events that could have ended my college career. When I did not do well in several classes or not passing exams, which made thing about a lot of things. Should I quit college or not? Should I continue or not? Should I find a job or not? I encountered these a lot of times but told myself that I cannot quit …