Written by The Business Journal Staff
The program currently awaits final approval from several of the university’s review committees, but is expected to be included as an option for students by the start of the new fall semester.
“We’re nearing the end of the tunnel,” said Dr. Xinchun Wang, chair of the linguistics department at the university. “We’re at the final stage and are waiting for only minor adjustments to the proposal before approval.”
The Hmong minor is years in the making and has largely been spearheaded by Wang and program coordinator Dr. Kao-Ly Yang. The two began laying the groundwork in spring 2012 after seeing the need within the community.
“When I came here in 2004 I was very, very surprised they didn’t plan to do a minor in Hmong because they already had 15 credits. To do a minor, all you need is 18 credits,” Yang said. “Once Wang was named the [department] chair in 2012, we immediately began looking at ways to expand the program.”
The new minor builds off Fresno State’s current classes teaching students the Hmong language but has reorganized the curriculum to place more emphasis on academic writing, history and culture. The updated courses will also feature new textbooks created exclusively for the program by Yang.
“I chose not to publish them because they need to remain affordable for our students. We just photocopied them to help keep the cost down and each book will be around $20-25,” she said. “I want everyone to have the opportunity to learn.”
Since Fresno State officials announced their intent to push forward with the proposed Hmong minor at the university last year, the idea has been met with passionate support from the Hmong community locally and abroad, with Yang fielding program inquiries from all over the world.
“I have people writing to me from China, saying ‘will this class be available online?’” she said. “They are all very excited and cannot believe we are doing this.”
A handful of Hmong language degree courses exist throughout the country, including a program at the University of Minnesota. However, Fresno State administrators say the local program will be the first on the West Coast and greatly benefit the Central Valley.
The region is home to one of the largest Hmong populations in the U.S — with more than 30,000 Hmong recorded living in the greater-Fresno area in 2010 — and the language is the third most popular in the Valley.
“The Hmong are a stateless people, and when you don’t have a state, where do you keep your identity? For the Hmong, language is their identity,” Yang said.
“This [program] means so much to the elderly in our community because the Hmong have experienced two genocides. Many of them were worried they would be unable to preserve their culture for future generations,” she added.
While a majority of the discussion has so far revolved around the program’s contributions towards preserving the Hmong cultural heritage, Yang said the new classes would also impact local industries like health care and education.
“We have close to 2,000 Hmong students at Fresno State and many of them are involved in the nursing program. They do need the language to be bilingual for patients since there are still many elders who do not speak English” she said. “The second most popular trend among the group is teaching and education, so they are also likely to take these language skills out into the workforce.”
Wang agreed and said public services, health care groups, schools, local government, business and agriculture can all benefit from hiring people who speak appropriately in the Hmong language.
“This is a big step for the university because it helps more students achieve these additional skills which will set them apart from the competition,” she said. “Lots of our business students minor in other languages for trade purposes. There is a huge Hmong community in China and this can help local groups [expand their market].”
The new minor program is also designed to appeal to those outside the Hmong community and Michael Shepherd, assistant professor in the university’s linguistics department, said administrators are encouraging all students interested in learning a new language to consider Hmong.
“You can’t just have a course that is specific to one group. So this program is really for everyone. Anyone who will be working for the community and needs to know the language and culture,” he said. “You might need to learn the history in order to connect.”
The department designed several of the minor’s entry-level courses to be compatible with Fresno State’s general education requirements in order to make the program more appealing to students, he said.
The tactic also helps treat the Hmong program just like any other language offered by the department, since students are currently able to fulfill general education credits through the existing minor language programs of Chinese and Japanese.
Offering general education credits for Hmong classes will also help keep the cost of the program low for students, a major concern for administrators like Yang who say Hmong students often cannot afford to pay the average $600-800 for each additional or elective class.
“If you look at their transcripts, most Hmong students have no minor or double-major, they simply take the required courses for their degree,” she said. “We are learning from our students the different strategies to best market the minor to them.”
The department has already collected more than 50 names on its student interest list and expects to hear from more individuals once the minor is approved and scheduled for the fall semester.
Once the proposed minor is made official, it will help put Fresno State on the map as a leader within the Hmong community and transform the Central Valley, Wang said.
“This is not a remote application,” she said. “These new language skills will help students become better citizens and play a bigger part within the community.”