Professor develops Hmong history course

The course, taught by Mai Na Lee, is the first of its kind in the nation.

by Betsy Graca

The University’s history department is making a little history of its own.

That’s because University history professor Mai Na Lee developed and still instructs the first Hmong history course in the nation. The course was first offered last spring.

Lee, who is beginning her tenure at the University, has spent more than 15 years mastering the subject of Hmong history.

The University felt a demand for an expansion of Hmong studies, Lee said, because of its efforts to connect with the surrounding community.

“It’s really important that we at the University take as our object of studies the community around us,” said Ann Waltner, a former history department co-chairwoman who recruited Lee to instruct the course. “We’re living in a community where there is such a dynamic Southeast Asian immigrant population.”

It’s appropriate that the course would first be taught at the University, Lee said, as the Twin Cities has the densest Hmong population in the nation.

Lee estimates 500 to 600 Hmong students attend the University, the largest population of any Big Ten school.

Although the course is open to all junior and senior students, the majority of students enrolled in the course are Hmong.

Lee first instructed the course in the Hmong language in the University of Wisconsin language department. At Minnesota, however, all junior and senior students are encouraged to take the course.

Xiong Yang, an individualized studies senior, said he feels the University including the course is very progressive for the Hmong community.

“I wanted to take the class to get a better sense of my Hmong history and that history from a scholarly viewpoint,” Yang said.

Lee said she has had tremendous community support and has received e-mails from all over the world both congratulating her and inquiring about the course.

Lee listed several reasons that the Hmong community has been so attracted to this region.

In the 1970s, many educated elites settled in the Twin Cities and were able to establish homes in the Twin Cities, encouraging more of the population to follow, Lee said.

She said the Hmong were able to reconnect with families that had already settled here and were able to find success in the local job market.

Minnesotans’ generally accepting and liberal attitudes made the transition easier for the Hmong to establish their new homes, Lee said.

As the Hmong population continues to grow, perhaps Hmong studies will expand at the University as well, Lee said.

Waltner, Yang and Lee all agreed this course is a major step for the Hmong population.

“The community is really happy the University is allowing this course to happen,” Lee said.