Hmong PhD alum reflects on research, family pride

By Meghan Chua


Pao Vue’s interest in animals and nature began at a young age, eventually leading him to UW–Madison.

As his career goals evolved – taking shape in environmental science and conservation – they set Vue on a journey that has made him one of the first Hmong Americans to receive a PhD in his field.

Vue’s doctorate degree in geography, which he earned in spring 2018, brings pride to his family and clan, but also warrants recognition of the challenges the Hmong population faces in higher education.

Vue’s educational journey
Pao Vue
Pao Vue, who received his PhD in Geography in May 2018, during his fieldwork in Laos.

Vue grew up in a refugee family from Laos. His father fought for the U.S. in the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, Vue’s family moved to the U.S. – first to Salt Lake City, then to La Crosse, Wisconsin – to escape a harsh political climate against those who had sided with the U.S. during the war, and were thus labelled traitors.

Neither of his parents spoke English, so Vue grew up watching the public television nature documentaries his parents watched. That influenced his educational path, Vue said; he attended UW–Madison for zoology, then UW-Green Bay for a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Policy.

After earning a master’s, Vue wanted to get even more training to prepare for the type of conservation work he wanted to do.

“I felt that geography presented an avenue for me to gain and enhance my skills working with people, and specifically villagers in less-developed or developing countries,” Vue said.

Vue’s goal during his PhD program was to conduct fieldwork with villagers in his native Laos. His advisor, geography professor Ian Baird, has studied natural resource use and biodiversity in Southeast Asia, including conducting field work in Laos. Baird’s experience and knowledge made him a perfect mentor for Vue.

With help from his clan and advisor, Vue was able to arrange a 16-month fieldwork trip to the Laksao region. Due to the history of the Hmong people during the Vietnam war, Vue said the clan connection was essential in making the research possible for him as a Hmong American. Some of the villages in the Laksao region where Vue conducted his research are dominated by his clan, who could help watch over him during his stay. The region is also right next to Nakai-Nam Theun, the largest natural wildlife protected area in Laos. It was perfect for Vue’s research.

In the Laksao area, he studied how Hmong villagers perceive and interact with their environment in the face of factors out of their control, such as laws regulating resource use and technological advances.

Pao Vue stands by a sign that says "Laksao" wearing a Wisconsin Badgers t-shirt.
Pao Vue in the Laksao region of Laos, where he conducted fieldwork for his dissertation.

Traditional Hmong beliefs about the sacred nature of resources have been superseded by new ideas, many spurred by technological advancement, undermining the historical ways Hmong villagers have conserved their environments. For example, Vue explained that traditional Hmong beliefs tell of supernatural beings that guard the forests, keeping villagers from taking too many natural resources from them. But, recently a belief has emerged that these beings are afraid of cell phones and cameras – they don’t want their pictures taken. That means a villager with a cell phone camera can take as many resources out of the forests as they want, with no interference from the supernatural beings.

“They have these emerging beliefs that deal with technology that are leading to a lot of resource extraction, even in areas once considered to be off-limits to hunting and the collection of timber and non-timber forest products,” Vue explained, adding that laws restricting villagers’ traditional agricultural practices are further pushing the dial.

In the future, Vue hopes to continue his work with conservation, including working directly with villagers to incorporate conservation practices into their systems.

Challenges and pride

Individuals like Vue who earn advanced degrees are successful in their own right, but his story does not stand in for the Hmong population overall.

“It is true that more Hmong Americans are graduating with graduate and advanced degrees (both professional and doctorate degrees) from U.S. universities than 30 or 40 years ago,” said Yang Sao Xiong, assistant professor in the School of Social Work and the Asian American Studies Program at UW–Madison, in an email. “However, Hmong American graduates with advanced or doctorate degrees are the exceptions rather than the norm.”

In a 2012 paper, Xiong found that less than 3 percent of Hmong Americans aged 25 and older had obtained a master’s degree or higher. In Wisconsin, the state with the nation’s third largest Hmong population, that figure was 2 percent.

“Hmong Americans have a long way to go until they reach parity with the general Wisconsin or U.S. population in terms of advanced degree attainment,” Xiong said.

A number of structural barriers, including economic, racial, and political barriers, continue to challenge Hmong’s educational attainment, Xiong said. Among these challenges are concentrated poverty in the Hmong American community, academic tracking based on language minority status, major cuts in the federal funding for college access programs such as the TRIO programs, and the backlash against affirmative action.

In talking to Vue, it becomes anecdotally clear that a PhD is the exception in his family network.

Vue said his family members are proud – enough so that some members of his clan informed him that he is one of the first to earn a PhD in his lineage, a subset of the clan that includes multiple families in the same line.

“I think it does bring a sense of pride and joy to not only my family but my lineage and my relatives,” Vue said. “I think it matters to them, probably more so than it does to me. I’m happy I pursued it. I hoped it would get me to where I would like to be eventually. But I think it matters more to them than it does to me.”