August 2017

Many of Minnesota’s private colleges were founded by immigrants — immigrants traveling many miles and starting a new life. This history still informs our colleges and directs them to connect with new Americans in their communities.

Creating a hub for Hmong history and culture

Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University, St. Paul

Higher education institutions can be places where culture and tradition are preserved. The Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University, St. Paul is one such place. The Center was founded in 2004 from the understanding that Concordia’s community was changing, according to Paul Hillmer, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Science where the Center is housed. “Concordia recognized it was uniquely situated in an area of St. Paul where many Hmong had settled and wanted to make long-lasting relationships with the community,” Hillmer said. “Lee Pao Xiong, who has been the director from the beginning, has been instrumental in the formation and leadership of the Center.”

Looking regionally, nationally and internationally, the center works with students, community members and academics. Every other year it hosts the International Conference on Hmong Studies, which brings together people from around the world who are interested in Hmong history and culture. “From the beginning, the center has been a community resource — a place where Hmong history and identity can be maintained and a resource for other higher education intuitions.” Hillmer said. “The Center combines documenting the past, enriching the present and charting the future. It tries to serve as many people as possible.”

Concordia was founded by German Lutheran immigrants, and this immigrant heritage still informs the university's vision today. “Connecting with the Hmong community fits directly with our vision of ‘offering exceptional opportunities for student from all back grounds,’” Hillmer said. “The immigrants may look different, but the story stays remarkably the same from generation to generation.”

Providing a home for many faiths

In 2015, Augsburg College created a new position — Muslim chaplain. The neighborhood around Augsburg College and Minneapolis as a whole has welcomed a large Muslim immigrant population. As enrollment of Muslim-American students grew, Augsburg hired Fardosa Hassan for the new position.

“When they created the position and I went out into the Muslim community, people thought Augsburg already had a Muslim chaplain,” Hassan said. “It was clear that the community had already embraced Augsburg.”

Although Hassan’s main role is to welcome Muslim students and help them be successful, she serves all types of students. “I am here to help students find the right classes, to help with personal issues and to support students to ensure they can be successful,” Hassan said. “It’s important that Muslim students have someone who looks like them and has the same traditions as them, but I work with lots of different students.”

Augsburg has a rich tradition of serving new Americans. It was founded in 1869 by Norwegian immigrants and continues to serve Minnesota's diverse immigrant communities. “Augsburg has done a great job of understanding the relationship as a two-way street,” Hassan said. “Augsburg supports the Muslim community but the Muslim community supports Augsburg too. They both contribute to each other.”

Reflecting Minnesota’s changing demographics

Gustavus Adolphus College was founded by Swedish immigrants; many of the first classes weren’t taught in English but in Swedish. Driven by the college’s new strategic plan, Gustavus continues to focus on diversifying the student body.

One of the communities Gustavus connects with is the Latinx community in Minnesota, said Jesús Hernandez Mejia, assistant dean of financial aid. He described some of the ways they aim to build these connections. “One of the things we are doing is helping undocumented high school students get connected with the Minnesota Dream Act,” Hernandez Mejia said. “Many parents and students are nervous about it, so we help them feel more comfortable and safe during the process. We also have some very close connections with high schools that have large Latino populations. Cristo Rey High School in Minneapolis has noticed how well we serve students and now they bring their students down to Gustavus to learn about opportunities we offer.”

The Latinx population is growing not only around Gustavus but all over Minnesota, and Gustavus wants to be sure these students have access to great higher education options. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic population in Minnesota increased 41 percent from 2005-2015. “The Latino population is growing — anywhere you go you find a Latino population — and we are working to ensure they know about Gustavus and the kind of education they can earn here,” Hernandez Mejia said.

“From our foundation Gustavus has focused on immigrants and helping them go out and serve the community,” Hernandez Mejia said. “The faces might look a little different, but the core of who they are is the same.”

By Tom Lancaster