For the purpose of investigating identity amongst Hmong college students we held a focus group session and conducted 15 individual interviews. We combined multiple theoretical approaches regarding identity, ethnicity, and socialization to analyze the results of our ethnographic study. In this research project on Hmong college students’ formation of identity we found family values, traditions, religious practices, and social roles within the Hmong community to have a significant impact. These factors served as socializing agents in the process of identity creation. In addition, non-Hmong peers’ and professors’ ignorance about the Hmong culture affected Hmong college students’ self-concepts. However, through higher education the students hope to gain independence and opportunities to develop their own identity separate from their parents’ expectations. Other challenges included financial concerns and balancing two cultural perspectives. Overall Hmong students managed to find ways of asserting their identities on campus by forming Hmong organizations that act as a support system. St. Olaf College Hmong students continue to practice and maintain their traditional culture, while integrating American ideals. Together Hmong college students are redefining what it means to be Hmong.
Saint Olaf is a campus composed of roughly 3000 students. The Hmong community within the college is about 1.3%, or 40 students.
Owing to the large proportion of Hmong and Hmong Americans that reside in Minnesota, and the large numbers of young people, identity formation amongst college age youth will be extremely influential in the community. This study uses the examines the formation of ethnic identity through the interaction of a variety of factors, including the socializing agents of family and school. Berry’s ethnic identity outcomes are examined and applied, while outsiders’ perspectives and conceptions of outsiders also shape self-concept.
We invited all Hmong students on campus to participate in the research. The study consisted of a focus group including approximately 20 people, and 15 individual interviews.
Hmong students often find it hard to balance two worlds: Hmong vs. American (Traditional vs. Modern), maintaining ethnic identity while integrating into dominant American society.
There was no unified definition of “Hmong” created by Hmong college students, but they had a shared sense of history, community, and culture. Membership in Hmong communities both on and off campus provided a support system, and opportunities to discuss and develop ethnic identity. However, Hmong college students frequently felt alienated by professors and non-Hmong peers as a result of discriminatory acts or assumptions.
Setting and Community
For the purposes of our Ethnographic Research Methods course we conducted a study at Saint Olaf College, a liberal arts school located in rural Northfield, Minnesota about an hour drive from the Twin Cities. One of the main focuses of the college is to develop a community that is understanding of diversity and multiculturalism domestically and internationally. As advocated in the institution’s mission statement: “St. Olaf College strives to be an inclusive community, respecting those of differing backgrounds and beliefs,” (St. Olaf College 1987). This goal also applies to awareness of various subgroups on campus. St. Olaf College is known for their wide variety of cultural study abroad and off campus programs, amongst other organizations relating to multiculturalism and diversity. However, on campus the average knowledge about minority cultures and ethnicities is still lacking, according to the experiences of Hmong college student participants in our investigation.
Although the campus is predominantly White, a small portion of the students who attend the college are minorities. Minority groups consist of African/African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian, which have slowly been increasing over time. Of these minority students there are about 40 Hmong students, a population that continues to grow stronger each year, making an impact on the Saint Olaf College community through organizations, events, academics, and many other pursuits. All of the students that participated in this study were either 1.5 or second generation Hmong. “1.5 generation” is a term used to refer to first generation immigrants who arrived in the host country (e.g. U.S.) at a very young age, whereas “second generation” designates those who were born in the U.S. after their parents immigrated.
The college pushes for the best adaptation possible for Hmong students to progress well academically, by understanding the Hmong culture and Hmong student needs. There are programs such as Student Support Services (SSS) to help first generation college students surpass difficulties in school, even though SSS does more than just aiding students in completion of college. SSS provides a Summer Bridge program that requires participants to come one month before school begins and enroll in a biology course for credit. In this way incoming SSS students may gain credit before their first full semester begins. Through SSS, the Hmong students quickly learn how to better prepare themselves for their college experience. The Multicultural Affairs Community Outreach (MACO) also provides support to Hmong college students through advisors and counseling of the multicultural organizations. In addition, they assist minority students in conflicts that they may encounter on campus.
Each year, more and more Hmong students attend St. Olaf College simply because it is known as having a respectable reputation in the upper Midwest, and includes outreach programs to high schools with large Hmong student populations. Perhaps more importantly, Hmong students and family today understand the importance of higher education. Hmong parents have sought greater opportunities and a rich life for their families through their migration to the U.S., and hope that these dreams may be realized through their children’s college attendance.
Identifying potential participants for this study was fairly simple for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the Hmong community at Saint Olaf is proportionately small compared to the entire student body. More importantly, we (the researchers) all had connections to Hmong students on campus through friendships, organizations, clubs, classes, and other sources. We began by making a comprehensive list of all Hmong students and informing students about our study verbally, and formally through emails for the focus group and individual letters for the personal interviews. All participants had at least a week to consider and respond to the email or letter sent in regards to the study.
The focus group was the first meeting we held with the Hmong students and 20 individuals participated. We opened the session with Hmong refreshments and a brief welcome and thank you. Following introductions we quickly began our focus session (so as not to waste participants’ time) by first reading the Project Information Form, which included information about confidentiality, and the purpose of our study. After allowing time for any students who did not wish to participate to exit the room, we asked students to write down information regarding basic demographic questions. Following this process we began our discussion session, allowing anyone to jump in and answer our questions.
We used a digital recorder placed in the middle of the table to capture speakers’ answers. However, one of us also kept notes of what was said for transcription and back-up purposes. During this time one of the researchers mapped out where all the participants sat in the room. The focus group session was predicted to take about one hour, but actually continued for approximately an hour and a half. Students were reminded at the one-hour mark that they were not required to continue discussion and could leave at any time.
After distributing letters about the interviews we intended to conduct, we identified interviewees through those that expressed interest, and asking individuals we were familiar with in the community. Ultimately we were able to interview 15 Hmong students. Interviews lasted from 10 minutes to a half an hour, depending on how much students had to say. One interview was conducted with two female students together, and this session lasted for a full hour. We attempted to represent the larger Hmong student population by selecting students from each class, and roughly equal numbers from each gender (7 men and 8 women) to get a fair perspective regarding their experiences.
The interviews were begun by reading the Project Information Form, which explained confidentiality practices and our interview and study’s purposes. From there we proceeded with approximately 20 questions regarding memories and experiences that related to being Hmong, both on and off campus. Some of the interviews were recorded digitally, but because we only owned one digital recorder and had strict time constraints we recorded several interviews with notes only.
In selecting our research topic for Ethnographic Research Methods, our group was interested in studying concerns and issues within the Hmong community that would be relevant to our own experiences and St. Olaf campus life. In addition, we hoped that it might be useful to both members of the wider Hmong community and those of St. Olaf; thus promoting greater understanding, and providing a means to improve relationships. In doing so it was also necessary to remain practical: what subgroup(s) did we (1) have access to and (2) could fit investigation of within a single semester? Upon reflecting on these concerns, Hmong and Hmong American college students seemed like a rational and significant group to study.
The importance of working with Hmong youth is compacted by the fact that Minnesota provides “home” for the second largest population of Hmong and Hmong Americans in the nation (Lee and Pfeifer 2005:8). Furthermore, according to Nationally Aggregated Hmong Data from the 2000 Census, the median age of Hmong nation-wide was 16.1 years (35.3 for the wider U.S. population), with 56% of Hmong counted at 18 years old or younger (25.7% for wider U.S. population) (2002). This data emphasizes the significance of challenges encountered by the younger generation: the future of the Hmong community. Furthermore, while several studies have been conducted on Hmong high school students, very few have been published about Hmong college students. Our decision to examine identity was a result of our personal interest; and the potential for educators, administrators, and service workers to better connect with Hmong students by gaining information on the way they view themselves.
Originally we had hoped to complete interviews and possibly focus groups with Hmong and Hmong American students attending St. Olaf College and Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. We had also considered spanning research attempts to students at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, or other institutions in the Metropolitan area. However, owing to time, resource, and networking constraints the study was limited to Hmong students at St. Olaf College. Despite our small population, we found that students were extremely willing to share their experiences, allowing us to compile ample qualitative material to draw upon.
The final product of this study in Hmong and Hmong American St. Olaf College student identity formation is a discussion of the way in which family, school, and peers all play a role in the continuation of cultural traditions,1 and generational changes of self-image.
In examining Hmong college student identity formation as it relates to their Hmong heritage, self and outsiders conceptualizations of ethnic and cultural identity are both contributing factors. However, it is important to remember that terms like “ethnicity” and “culture” are not easily or simply defined. For the purposes of this paper a combination of Nguyen’s (2004:1) and Brooker’s (1999:87) definitions of “ethnicity” will be used to explain this term as: a perceived social and cultural group membership, or identity/ies based on nationality, ancestry, or both. The following explicated theories will serve to draw connections between isolated individual experience and Hmong young adult identity formation. Such an approach will help to demonstrate that meaning and self are not created by a single person, but rather formed in a dialectical relationship between individuals and society (Berger 1969; Geertz 1973:9-10).
James Marcia’s identity development theory is useful in examining experiences of 1.5 and second generation Hmong youth. Marcia’s approach consists of four stages: foreclosure, identity diffusion, moratorium, and identity achievement (2000; Williams 2003:8; Nguyen 2004:6). In foreclosure an individual bases their identity and self-concept on what their parents have taught them. Identity diffusion means that the person has yet to determine their identity. They may have experienced an identity crisis, but came to no solutions. Moratorium is the period of experimentation; those in this category are undergoing an identity crisis. Finally, identity achievement involves an individual having autonomously come to conclusions about their identity.
Marcia’s stages of identity development can be applied to Hmong youths’ balancing of traditional Hmong culture and internalized American dominant culture. In childhood families play the largest role in socialization, however as time is increasingly spent at school and at college, youth may come to reexamine their self-concept. This may lead to a crisis including total rejection of Hmong ways represented by elders or rebellion against broader American society. Such an experience may or may not be followed by satisfactory achievement of self-concept.
In our work examining Hmong college student identity, analysis requires a more attentive look at ethnic identity. This concept, according to Williams (2003:4), is constructed on the basis of several criteria, which may include: 1) perception of membership to an ethnic group, 2) loyalty and pride of ethnicity, 3) shared appearances or culture, 4) common “values or attitudes,” 5) shared history, 6) minority related experience, 7) language, 8) behavior, 9) and self-identification. Cultural and ethnic interaction occur constantly, thus the contents of these categorizations are extremely transient. Even so, ethnic identity is a powerful characterization that serves to divide and unite society.
Several socializing agents play a role in the creation of ethnic identity: family, peer groups, school, local communities, and media. Individuals both actively select from, and are forcefully influenced by these groups. One’s family contributes to one’s initial self-image, values, beliefs, social status, notions of gender roles, and provides a basic method for perceiving society. Alternatively, peer groups provide independence from adult constraints allowing Hmong college students an additional forum to challenge values, norms, and behavior acquired elsewhere (2000:2859). An example is found amongst friendships and organizations formed on St. Olaf’s campus. Additionally, College is a socializing institution, mainly affecting knowledge, values, customs, and self-value. Grades received or attitudes from professors affect Hmong students’ self-image and can create stress: “Labeling and expectancy effects occur in most socialization contexts and have important consequences for self-concept development,” (2000:2858). Labeling of Hmong youth required by institutions reflect judgments by society, which in turn contributes to the formation of one’s beliefs of self. Media is another agent that holds sway over identity. Its images have the power to educate, but also to critique. Those who do not or cannot conform to normative ideals may be demonstrated in selectively negative narratives.
When looking specifically at ethnic identity development Berry (as cited in Williams) offers a model of possible outcomes. Depending on the person involved and their social context, different results may occur including: separation, assimilation, integration, and marginality. Separation discards the dominant group’s “values and behaviors” while maintaining those associated with one’s “traditional” ethnicity (Williams 2003:8), whereas assimilation is the direct opposite. On the other hand, integration merges the values and behaviors of both cultures, while marginality rejects both. This framework is particularly useful in examining the way Hmong and Hmong American youth form their identities, and determine their “niche” in society. Depending on various interrelated factors, individuals find themselves falling somewhere within Berry’s spectrum of outcomes.
As has been previously introduced, self-awareness of Hmong ethnicity is a distinct factor in identity formation. Consequent a shared sense of community through ethnic identity is creation of external “others.” As noted by Lutz and Collins, identity formation is resultant of internalized images of outsiders (Lutz 1993:2). Furthermore, social identity theory supports the “notion that in-group awareness increases throughout the developmental life course and the internalized group norms contribute to an individual’s self-identity,” in addition to “out-group awareness,” (Nguyen 2004:10). As ethnic minority Hmong youth develop distinct notions of “Hmongness” they may find comfort amongst others experiencing the same challenges. In contrast to these cohesions, both Hmong youths’ views of outsiders, and those outsiders’ views of the Hmong alter how their identity coalesces. Identity is thus a constant process influenced by socialization and selective internalization.
Additionally, it should be noted that active “identity” formation, rather than ascribed roles or social status is a distinctly modern issue. One experienced not only by Hmong youth, but also by groups and individuals internationally as they try to negotiate the mutability of our contemporary world. David Marr recalls a similar position encountered by Vietnamese nationalists in the 1920s that had graduated from the colonialist educational system: “they stood unsteadily between two worlds and tried hard to envisage a third,” (Marr 1981:9). This is an apt description of the position Hmong college students find themselves today. They must make decisions about how to adapt to life in the America, while discovering how to draw on the strengths of their Hmong