Homeroom Concordia University / Hmong camp carries the culture forward

Monday, August 10, 2009

Youngsters and teens learn language, culture and traditions
By Nancy Ngo
Updated: 08/09/2009 11:58:40 PM CDT

Browse more photo galleries » Watch video » As a first generation Hmong-American, 16-year-old Nhoukuja Vue, of St. Paul, worries that elder Hmong traditions will get lost with each passing generation.

She and her peers speak English to each other. Not only are younger generations speaking the Hmong language less, even fewer of their members know how to read or write their ethnic language.

Wanting to preserve her culture, Nhoukuja Vue has enrolled the past two years in the Hmong Culture and Language Program at Concordia University in St. Paul. The annual two-week summer camp that wrapped up last weekend is made up of community leaders teaching Hmong youth — and others interested in learning about the culture — Hmong storytelling, gardening and arts. Dancing, singing and playing traditional Hmong music are all part of the mix.

"You come to the camp because you want to concentrate on learning more about your culture," Nhoukuja Vue said. "It's not the same as going to festivals, where you're going more to socialize with your friends and family."

Sally Baas, director of Concordia's Southeast Asian Teacher Program, started the summer camp six years ago. She felt it was important to preserve Hmong traditions and educate others about the culture.

Hmong came to the United States as refugees from Thailand, Laos and China after the Vietnam War. St. Paul has the largest Hmong population of any city in the United States — about 25,000. Minnesota has one of the largest

state populations of Hmong.
Preserving the language was key to Hmong youth being successful in America, Baas said. "Studies have shown that in order to acquire and communicate well in another language, you must really have a foundation of your heritage language," Bass said.

The culture and language program has generated plenty of interest since its inception. This year, more than 500 youth, ages 3 to 21, throughout the state participated. When the program started six years ago, 32 students were enrolled.

As a result, Concordia has partnered with more than a dozen other institutions to sponsor the program, including several area school districts.

The camp has become a model at other colleges and universities. Bass has helped design curriculums for Hmong culture and language summer camps at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Southwest Minnesota State University and Michigan State University. Baas also has worked with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, which she said plans to launch a Hmong camp next summer.

Tommy Yang feels the more people the program reaches the better. The 17-year-old from St. Paul is helping teach at this year's camp and likes that the program encourages Hmong youth to take time out of their lives to honor their heritage.

"We can get distracted with new technology and all these other things," he said. The camp "helps us remember who we are and where we came from. Then, we take what we've learned and pass it on to others."

Nancy Ngo can be reached at 651-228-5172.



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