The Milwaukee-based Hmong American Peace Academy (HAPA) celebrated a significant milestone on June 7 with the graduation of its class of 2024 on the school’s 20th anniversary.

Founded by Chris Her-Xiong in 2004 as Wisconsin’s first Hmong charter school, HAPA opened its doors to a few dozen youth. More than half of those who enrolled had come as refugees to the United States in the last wave from Thailand.

“We started with 200 scholars. Right now we’re serving nearly 1900 scholars, graduating nearly 700 seniors in the past 13 years,” said Her-Xiong, CEO of HAPA. “So we’re very excited that we’re making an impact in their lives and in the community.”

Her-Xiong told the graduation class of 2024 that nothing defined progress more than the power of empowerment, and encouraged them to strive for generational change. She said the graduates were poised for success through their dedication, determination, and discipline.

“Please, keep your dreams alive,” Her-Xiong said, “because as the saying goes … if you dream it, you can achieve it.”

The class of 2024 faced unique challenges, having started their high school journey as freshmen at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual learning posed significant obstacles, with many struggling to adapt to the new educational format.

“Our scholars had to adapt quickly to a completely different learning environment,” said Her-Xiong. “Some were falling behind, but they worked really hard to recover in order to graduate. And so now they’ve made it.”

The journey of HAPA began long before its establishment in 2004. Her-Xiong’s personal story mirrored the larger narrative of the Hmong people. In 1975, as a ten-year-old in Laos, Her-Xiong was forced to flee with her family under the cover of night to escape the dangers of the Communist regime. Their perilous journey took them across the Mekong River to Thailand.

At the age of 11, Her-Xiong arrived in the United States and grappled with an identity crisis. She was uncertain about who she was, where she came from, or why her family had moved because her parents had not shared the details of their situation.

Growing up in a small town where they were the only Asian family, she yearned to be Americanized. However, she faced a constant conflict between the life she was born into and the life she aspired to.

Each morning, Her-Xiong would leave for school and immerse herself in education and American culture. But every night, she would return home to her family and the insular Hmong community they maintained. It was a heavy burden at a young age, with expectations of adherence to tradition.

Her-Xiong understood the challenges of her immigrant generation, and what would follow when she formed her vision for HAPA. She built the school on three pillars: cultural strength, a community of peace builders, and rigorous academics. Hmong heritage, including the language, culture, and history was also woven into the backbone of the curriculum.

With the motto of “Forever Forward,” HAPA was designed to educate Hmong youth. But it also served to help them and the local Hmong community adapt to the culture shocks they experienced in Milwaukee. Over the past two decades, the results have been transformational.

“Our scholars, our families, our community have been transformed through the mission and investment of the school into these young lives to become productive citizens,” said Her-Xiong. “We wanted to ensure that they could be productive for themselves and their families.”

Nearly three dozen graduates were recognized for attending HAPA since enrolling in K4 preschool classes, and staying through the 12th grade of High School. That longevity highlighted how embedded HAPA was in Milwaukee’s Hmong community, and how it was building an ecosystem of success.

The graduating Class of 2024 also received a total of 376 college acceptances and 240 scholarship offers.

“We are so proud of our scholars. They refused to be held back by barriers that some have said cannot be overcome,” said Darryl D. Morin, a member of HAPA’s Board of Directors. “Even though our graduates entered high school only to be confronted with the challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic, 100% of them have been accepted to a college or university and collectively, they have earned more than $10.4 million in scholarships. I cannot wait to see the amazing things they will go on to do.”

In March, HAPA celebrated the launch of its new institution, the HAPA Foundation. Prompted by increasing enrollment and the construction of a new high school building, HAPA recognized the need to address funding gaps and expand student opportunities.

“Our youth are hungry for education. And they know that education is the key to moving out of poverty,” added Her-Xiong. “Families want education for their children so that they can experience a better life.”

With 84% of the young scholars living at or below the poverty line, the foundation supports various programs, including extracurricular activities and a dual enrollment program at local colleges.

Since so many HAPA graduates remain in Milwaukee to support their families and contribute to the community, the foundation is another resource to ensure success academically and beyond.

As HAPA navigates into the future, it remains dedicated to Her-Xiong’s vision of ensuring the Hmong living in Milwaukee and their youth can forever move forward together.

© PHOTO NOTE: All the original editorial images published here have been posted to That Facebook collection of photos contains the Milwaukee Independent copyright and watermark for attribution, and may be used for private social media sharing. Do not download and repost images directly from this page.

© Photo

Lee Matz