I grew up in a small, low-income community surrounded by diverse groups of people, including other Hmong like myself, and Lao and Cambodian refugees. My neighbors were my classmates, and I felt like I had community — a place of belonging — because it was never hard to find another Hmong person. The demographics of those who pursue postgraduate training like me, however, are a sharp contrast to the people I grew up with.
As a Ph.D. student enrolled in a neuroscience and public policy graduate program, I have adapted to the experience of being the only Hmong American in most scientific settings. At my institution and at academic conferences where I share my research findings on Alzheimer’s disease, I have not yet met another Hmong American scientist at any level — undergraduate student, fellow graduate student, staff, or faculty — although there must be others out there.
My school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recognizes that Hmong Americans are underrepresented in higher education and nominated me to apply for a fellowship that supports students whose heritage is underrepresented in science. So I was shocked when the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study rejected my nomination because I did not fit into its racial/ethnic underrepresentation criteria.
While not explicitly stated in the rejection email, I was likely excluded because, in the U.S., data on the representation of students in science lump everyone with Asian heritages into a large, homogenous group, even though this category represents people with origins in any part of the largest continent in the world. The “Asian” category includes people from China, Japan, and India, as well as Vietnam, the Philippines, and others.
National reporting of academic achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, such as data from the National Center for Education Statistics, combine individuals with Asian heritages into one category. Aggregated statistics like these indicate higher academic achievement among Asians, so I can understand why anyone looking at these data might conclude that Asian Americans are well represented in STEM.
These aggregated statistics, however, do not reflect my experience as a Hmong American graduate student in academia, which can be described as living a prescribed visibility: I am both seen and not seen.
When I am seen as a Hmong American, I am treated as a perpetual foreigner or spokesperson for the Hmong community. In this context, people usually display well-intentioned interest in “my people” and ask questions about Hmong people, culture, and history. General questions like these would be appropriate for a Hmong scholar — someone who has studied the Hmong community and is a content expert. These questions, while superficially innocuous, place undue pressure on people of Hmong descent to be content experts on their entire community. These interactions minimize my academic identity as a neuroscience scholar and draw attention away from my studies and research on Alzheimer’s disease, a topic about which I care deeply and know quite a bit about.
But when I am not seen as Hmong American, I am treated based on pre-existing stereotypes about Asian Americans. People assume I have always gotten straight A’s and have parents who are proactively involved in my academic journey. On the surface, these may seem like positive stereotypes, but these stereotypes negate the very real struggles I face in navigating academia as the first person in my family to go to college. My experiences in academia illustrate the complex consequences of existing within a category that is perceived as homogenous.
Lumping diverse groups together and treating them as a single entity can mask existing disparities. In 2018, the Pew Center found that educational attainment and income levels varied widely in the U.S. among those classified under the Asian American umbrella. Income inequality, for example, grew far faster in this group between 1970 and 2016 than among any other group.
These data, coupled with my reality, suggest that the category of Asian American is not a good one for capturing varied outcomes. Perhaps it is time to intentionally consider more effective methods that will reflect the rich and diverse experiences of groups with Asian heritages. While individuals with Asian heritages may share similar visible features, we have uniquely different stories. The world is big enough to make room for new ways of thinking and moving forward.
After learning that HHMI did not consider me as coming from an underrepresented group, I posted a late-night Twitter thread. My intention was to share my experience and put forth a call to action for the 22 followers I then had. I hoped I could start a conversation on how aggregating data of people with Asian heritages into a monolithic Asian-American category can be harmful. I was also working through complex frustration.
I agree with and believe in the Gilliam Fellowship’s mission of uplifting students from underrepresented groups in science, including individuals from Black and Indigenous communities. I don’t dispute for a moment that scholars from Black and Indigenous communities should be supported in academia.
At the same time, I also believe it is important to address how scholars from other underrepresented communities, like the Hmong, could also be uplifted. (Editor’s note: HHMI reached out to the author after she published the Twitter thread and asked her to apply for the fellowship program.)
As an afterthought, I added #AcademicTwitter to my first tweet since I wanted to know if anyone out there knew of other Hmong scientists. I wanted to find community, and thought that asking academics would be a good way to start. Even though this Twitter thread has been shared thousands of times, no one has yet named another Hmong American woman neuroscientist.
During my years navigating academic science, I have had little success finding other Hmong American scientists, and my endeavor to find community is often invalidated when people point out how many Asian-American scientists there are in the STEM field.
I firmly believe in the scientific process. I am good at it, and I want to continue contributing to Alzheimer’s disease research, a devastating disease that disproportionately affects individuals from underrepresented groups. I believe that my research will contribute to understanding the disease and improve access to knowledge and information about the disease to people of all groups and communities.
It is this belief that grounds me, even if I am almost always the only Hmong American in the room.
Kao Lee Yang is a doctoral student studying neuroscience and public policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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