It all started in 2004, when a group of friends were struggling with college.
Six Hmong-American friends joined together to form the first ever Hmong fraternity at Fresno State. It’s the only Hmong fraternity active to this day.
“I think I heard it from my brother-in-law,” said Dao Yang, president of Eta Alpha Gamma. “Wait, like I didn’t believe him. I didn’t know that we actually had one.”
Yang’s brother-in-law was a senior when Yang first started attending Fresno State. His brother-in-law encouraged Yang to join the fraternity and brought him to the meetings.
Yang is a fifth-year student majoring in criminology with an option in law enforcement. He’s been a fraternity member since his freshman year, when he was elected vice president. He has held leadership roles since.
The fraternity just finished its 14th rush, a recruiting event that it holds every semester, but this time they were unable to recruit any new members. The fraternity has been struggling to find new members for the past few years. Before last spring, they went a year without any new members.
Eta Alpha Gamma has 11 active members with one member who isn’t Hmong American. The fraternity was created by Hmong-Americans for Hmong-Americans but has opened its arms to all young men of color. With only a few active members, Yang said it’s been hard to spread the word about this brotherhood.
“We don’t have the manpower to go out there and tell people who we are. Muaj peb tsawg tsawg xwb,” Yang said in Hmong, struggling to find the words in English. Meaning, “there’s only a little of us.” Because of the lack of manpower, every member is responsible for recruiting more brothers.
Back in 2004, the founding members had a purpose, a mission that sparked their ambition for higher education. Lee Xiong, one of the founders, said that many of them were first generation students, the first in their families to go to college. Xiong graduated from the mass communication and journalism department with an option in electronic media.
His cousin, who’s also a founding father, suggested the idea to Xiong and asked him to create the logos for the fraternity.
Xiong said the founders were searching for a place where they could practice their values of brotherhood. He said it was hard to find university resources that catered to them. Many of them wanted to succeed, but they didn’t know where to start.
Each year, Xiong would see fewer of his fellow Hmong brothers in college. It was evident that it was hard for them to stay in school. Xiong thought about dropping out of college, too. He felt lost and had a lot of responsibility at home.
Being the oldest son, Xiong’s parents had many expectations of him. Not only that, he got married when he was a sophomore in college. A year later, his first child was born and things just started piling up.
“If I wasn’t in the fraternity, I’m pretty sure I would have dropped out of school and gone to find a job,” Xiong said. “I owe a lot of my education to the brothers that were in the fraternity.”
Xiong said there were two brothers from the fraternity who were also married. They motivated him to not drop out. They told him, “You’re almost there. Just keep going.”
Xiong said, “You constantly have support.” When he finished his bachelor’s degree, it was the younger brothers in the fraternity who motivated him to go back and pursue a master’s degree.
“The initial mission was to help each other out and help others like them,” said Tou Ger Moua, a health science major and former vice president of Eta Alpha Gamma.
“We see ourselves as future leaders in society,” Moua said. “We’ll try to improve you as an individual and a professional.”
Eta Alpha Gamma has been around for more than 10 years, yet many still don’t know that it exists.
That was one of the issues addressed by Dr. Jenny Banh, assistant professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies at Fresno State. In a room full of mostly southeast Asian women, Banh spoke about her research on the “disappearing of southeast Asian-American males in academia.”
Southeast Asian men, especially, are dropping out of college, and enrollment numbers are decreasing annually, Banh said.
Banh talks about the theoretical and cultural factors she found in her research that play into this growing gap of disappearance. Trauma, war, illiteracy and coming from a culture that has no written language are all factors, Banh said.
She found the Hmong male’s duty to work in order to support their families was one of the factors that may be causing southeast Asian men to leave school. They have a higher young marriage rate, Banh said. There’s pressure to support the family.
“One of the big things that I found in my data is this push to provide for the family,” Banh said. “You have to provide for the family.”
Hmong culture is known to be very patriarchal, Banh said. This “push to provide for the family” is a strong barrier that often causes southeast Asian males to pursue jobs rather than an education.
“One of the barriers I find that is such a huge impediment for Asian Americans, particularly southeast Asian American males, is not asking for help,” Banh said.
Asian men are taught to keep to themselves, figure it out on their own and not ask for help. But, not asking for help may keep them from achieving higher education.
Southeast Asian men have one of the lowest college enrollment rates in the nation, Banh said. The gap between males and females point to one conclusion. Males are disappearing from the academic scene.
Along with other southeast Asian communities, the Hmong were placed in low-income neighborhoods. In these low-income neighborhoods are low-performing schools with poor academic resources, Banh said. Therefore, students are not equipped with tools to help them succeed in their education.
“We want Hmong men to achieve higher education such as going to college and graduating with a degree,” Yang said.
Walking in the shoes of their founding fathers, Yang and his brothers strive to help others who are also struggling with juggling school, work and family responsibilities.
Chico State University created the first Hmong American fraternity, Omega Chi Lambda, in the 1990s. When Eta Alpha Gamma first became recognized, the two fraternities met and collaborated on events.
“With the fraternity, the first Hmong fraternity in Chico, they struggled to commit to their own goals and vision,” Xiong said. “Because life happened.”
The bio section on Omega Chi Lambda’s website says it was experiencing leadership issues and an impeachment session was held. After 2005, Xiong said they lost contact with Omega Chi Lambda.
The fraternity offers a professional environment, but it’s also a space for the brothers to find their own place.
“When I first came to Fresno State, I didn’t know a lot of people,” said Koua Vue, a business marketing major. “Joining the frat is like a way to meet new friends.”
Vue said Eta Alpha Gamma is different from other clubs. He said their relationships are more intimate. In their fraternity, everyone knows one another personally and if they don’t, they will.
While the fraternity provides great academic resources, it also provides comfort and relationships that can last a long time.
The fraternity strives to provide as many resources as it can for its members. College is about succeeding and getting an education, but it’s also about having fun.
They hold bonding socials that have been a tradition since day one. The founding members often keep in touch and visit frequently. They have picnics and collaborate with other clubs and organizations from different universities. Once in a while, they have heart to heart talks about life and their personal struggles.
“It’s more like a family rather than an organization,” Moua said.
Their small group of members started out as strangers who became close friends. Now, they’ve developed relationships they hope will last a long time.
“We’re like another family,” Yang said.
Vue looked to Yang and Moua with a shy smile, “We’re brothers,” he said.