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How might co-ethnic studies foster campus belonging for minoritized college students?

By Steven Yang and Matthew Wolfgram 

Co-ethnic studies courses

Ethnic studies is an academic discipline focused on the study of power relations and their impact on minoritized communities, which emerged out of the post-civil rights era student activism in the United States since the 1970s (Hu-DeHart, 1993). Examples of ethnic studies departments and programs include Asian studies, Asian American studies, Black or African American studies, Raza studies, Chicano studies, Native American and Indigenous studies, Jewish studies, Arab studies, and others, as well as allied programs such as gender and women’s studies and disability studies. Many colleges and universities currently support ethnic studies curriculum; and while there is research and theory about the learning outcomes of ethnic studies in general, there is a lack of research on the academic and career outcomes of ethnic studies course participation for students of minoritized communities (Lee et al., 2020).  

Co-ethnic studies courses and experiences refer to the particular situation of a student taking a course where they study about the language, history, and culture of their own ethnic community. High quality co-ethnic studies courses—or a co-ethnic studies materials situated within a broader topic course—may employ critical frameworks (e.g., feminist, intersectional, anti-racist, or decolonial perspectives) which focus and analyze problems or structural inequalities impacting the community, as well as a community cultural wealth lens which identifies and celebrates the funds of knowledge and resiliencies of the community in the face of systemic challenges (Rodriguez, 2013). For HMoob students at UW-Milwaukee, examples of such co-ethnic studies courses include those associated with the Hmong Diaspora Studies Certificate such as: “Hmong Americans: History, Culture, and Contemporary Life,” “Topics in Asian History,” “The Vietnam War,” “Globalization of America-The Asian American Experience,” as well as HMoob language, internships, and study abroad courses. 

Co-ethnic studies and campus belonging 

Higher education research has found that when students feel a sense of belonging on campus, they are more likely to succeed academically and persist toward graduation (Hurtado & Carter, 1997)—and importantly, this effect also seems to apply to minoritized college students who may otherwise feel excluded or marginalized from the campus culture at Predominantly White Institutions (Museus et al., 2017; Rainey et al., 2018). When these students feel a sense of belonging, the evidence shows they are more likely to succeed in their education and career goals in measurable ways.  

The HMoob American College Paj Ntaub survey 

The HMoob American College Paj Ntaub study is currently in the process of analyzing data from our survey of HMoob students in the University of Wisconsin System (n=669; 40.5 response rate). While analyses and dissemination of the survey results are forthcoming, the preliminary findings indicate that HMoob students who participate in HMoob studies courses are more likely to report a higher sense of belonging on campus. In this blog we will provide preliminary findings that address the relationship between our measure of co-ethnic participation in HMoob studies on campus belonging (Hurtado & Carter, 1997), which show a strong positive association; and we will illustrate the connection with a narrative case study of one HMoob student’s experiences at UW-Milwaukee. Our measure of co-ethic studies participation comprised 4 items measured on a 5-point scale asking students to rate agreement that HMoob Studies classes were “offered and promoted,” that the student felt encouraged to participate by peers, faculty, and advisors, that the student had participated in such courses, that the student had “learned and benefited” from doing so. The regression model of the impact of co-ethnic participation controlled a variety of factors (see below), predicted campus belonging (p<0.001).11. The regression models controlled for the following: Gender, LGBTQ-identified, HMoob Language ability, Disability, Age, First-generation college status, Housing, Financial concern, Family support, Level of enrollment, GPA, Transfer student status, Stem program enrollment. 

Graph showing positive correlation between Hmong studies participation and sense of belonging
This strong association between co-ethnic studies participation and high feelings of campus belonging for HMoob college students raises a question about what mechanisms might facilitate this relationship. We are currently analyzing our follow-up interview material with students in order to explore this relationship. But for now, we present one case study that suggests that belonging results from opportunities that co-ethnic studies courses provide for students to integrate academic and career exploration with their ethnic community identity.

One student’s story: A narrative case study 

Jane (pseudonym), at the time of the interview, was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee majoring in graphic design. Jane grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin with their mother, siblings, and, for a time, their father, who terrorized their mother and family with his violent outbursts and consistent emotional abuse. The marriage was dissolved by Jane’s mother, who fled to the sanctuary of relatives and filed for divorce.  

According to Jane, their experiences of HMoob patriarchy has impacted both their gender identity as non-binary, and their perceptions of the HMoob community, both of which they have been contemplating and exploring while away in college:  

I think, especially lately, I’ve been exploring like why I identify as non-binary. Because very recently, I’ve been like having thoughts in my head where I’m like, am I choosing to be non-binary because I like genuinely feel that way, or do I choose to be non-binary because I’m scared of being female? Because, like as a HMoob person, as HMoob women, and just like a woman in general, like, there’s so much pressure held against us against women, and like just what they need to be, and what they need to do.  

While Jane grew up experiencing many of the traditions associated with HMoob culture, they felt marginalized and excluded from the community because a lack of HMoob language proficiency and because of their genderqueer, non-binary identity:  

It’s interesting, because I grew up with the food and everything, and I grew up with like all the like celebrations, I think, HMoob New Year and stuff. But I just like feel like a large disconnect. And I think it’s mainly because of that, like, I don’t know how to speak HMoob, and also because of like, because I am part of the LGBT community.   

Jane found their HMoob studies courses at UW-Milwaukee to be a setting where they could engage in cultural healing by learning about HMoob culture and history, and by exploring their relationship to the HMoob community. HMoob studies course participation, they explained:  

It also like helped to, I guess, like, heal the anger that I had like, towards my… towards the HMoob community. Because I think taking that class really helps me… I guess, take pride in like my culture and where I came from. And I really enjoyed taking it just because it taught me a lot about like, the history of my people that I was never really taught in school, or like even by like my parents or anything. So, when I took that class, I learned a lot about like, the Secret War and like what happened after the US troops like left, and just like how many… like HMoob people sacrificed their lives for the fight. And I think it really helped put into perspective a lot of the, I guess, generational trauma that HMoob people carry.  

Jane also shared that they took an honors course on issues of woman’s health where they learned about related issues and experiences in the HMoob community in Wisconsin. The connection to problems in the HMoob community made them excited to continue and expand their studies at UW-Milwaukee, to explore career options to address issues of health gender equity in the HMoob community:   

I’ve been like considering doing like, either a double major like a minor in Women and Gender Studies, because I feel like it’s a very important aspect that I would like to continue exploring, especially in the HMoob community, where I think these topics are widely overlooked.  

Jane’s experience illustrates how co-ethnic (HMoob) studies courses and course content in other disciplines (e.g., a HMoob module in a gender and health class) can support cultural healing and cultural identity development. This work, for Jane, connected their emerging cultural identity to their academic work and goals, and further, to an as yet inchoate conception of a career where they would address gender and health disparities for HMoob woman in your own community. When we interviewed Jane at the end of their sophomore year, they were excited by this idea of a career where they could impact the gender inequities in their community—gender inequalities which they and their family had experienced in such a traumatic way in the past. They were motivated to get back to campus in the fall and start the academic work to learn more about the possibilities.  

One reason for Jane’s strong positive motivation toward academic persistence was on account of their emerging conception of the role of college in a future career or impact on the HMoob community; in this case, by in some way addressing gendered health inequalities for the HMoob in Wisconsin.  This suggests that progressive social change or “giving back” may be important academic motivations for some minoritized students (as has been documented for American Indian college graduates; Salis Reyes, 2019).     

Conclusions and implications 

More work is needed to establish and document the academic impact of co-ethnic studies and to theorize the mechanisms that may underlie the process; and those findings will be posted on this blog site and disseminated in our other publications from the College Paj Ntaub study. Some policy impactions that are supported by the evidence and analysis that we are developing include the following:  

  • For institutions and leadership who seek high impact and low-cost methods to support the academic and career goals of their minoritized college studies, fund the expansion of all forms of ethnic studies. In particular, prioritize the expansion of those forms of ethnic studies that relate to the ethnic communities of your minoritized students’ communities; in the case of Wisconsin, Black Studies, Chicano/Latinx Studies, American Indian Studies, and HMoob Studies are all relevant targets for expanded funding. Note that ethnic studies course participation is not based on race-based preferences so the policy of supporting co-ethnic studies are less liable to current anti-DEI policies.  
  • For advisors and student support staff  who administer college support programs, advise, encourage, and create pathways for students to take co-ethnic studies courses. If students face barriers to taking such courses, such as scheduling conflicts or high academic loads, support their academic planning to help students prioritize participation in co-ethnic studies.    
  • For ethnic studies instructors, consider creating or expanding career development modules and opportunities to support students to explore careers or other life-goals which involve a component of service or engagement with their co-ethnic community. Furthermore, it will be important to include critical, feminist, and intersectional perspectives, because your co-ethnic students may themselves face multiple forms of minoritzation or exclusion from their own ethnic communities.  

Moving forward, the theory explored in this paper suggests the importance of community-oriented values and an ethic of care in the process of career identity development. While most theories of career development focus on processes of professional identity- or self-formation, current approaches have an overly individualized conception of the identity, as if career identities develop in a vacuum from the communities that students inhabit. Research with minoritized students such as American Indians, for example, highlights the importance of community-level outcomes of college, such as the ability to employ the knowledge and social capital of college to “give back” to the community (Salis Reyes, 2019). Similarly, for the HMoob student featured in this blog, their academic and career goals—and the sense of belonging on the campus where they work to develop those goals—is personally motivating because their goals have become integrated with the history and culture of their HMoob community. Co-ethnic studies courses provide an opportunity for HMoob students to de-individualize their academic and career goals by exploring and perceiving connections between their own goals and an ethics of care and service for their families and communities. 

Works cited 

Hu-DeHart, E. (1993). The history, development, and future of ethnic studies. The Phi Delta Kappan, 75(1), 50-54. 

Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on Latino college students’ sense of belonging. Sociology of education, 324-345. 

Lee, L., Xiong, P., Xiong, Y., Yang, L., Smolarek, B., Vang, M., Wolfgram, M., Moua, P., Thao, A. & Xiong, O. (2020). The Necessity of Ethnic Studies: Prioritizing Ethnic Studies During COVID 19 and Beyond. Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions. 

Museus, S. D., Yi, V., & Saelua, N. (2017). The impact of culturally engaging campus environments on sense of belonging. The Review of Higher Education, 40(2), 187-215. 

Rainey, K., Dancy, M., Mickelson, R., Stearns, E., & Moller, S. (2018). Race and gender differences in how sense of belonging influences decisions to major in STEM. International journal of STEM education, 5, 1-14. 

Salis Reyes, N. A. (2019). “What Am I doing to be a good ancestor?”: An Indigenized phenomenology of giving back among Native college graduates. American Educational Research Journal, 56(3), 603-637. 

Rodriguez, G. M. (2013). Power and agency in education: Exploring the pedagogical dimensions of funds of knowledge. Review of Research in Education, 37(1), 87-120.