Enduring Heritage, Newfound Horizons

UW-Green Bay alumnus Lolar Moua shares his journey and commitment to UW-Green Bay. Photos by Dan Moore, UW-Green Bay Photographer

Embracing his family origins, Lolar Moua rediscovers the threads of his heritage, weaving them into the tapestry of his American dream.

For Lolar Moua, his journey from childhood to college and beyond spans over 8,000 miles and more than two decades—all adding up to a transformative passage from the life he knew as a child in Laos to a new beginning in Wisconsin.

As a successful UW-Green Bay graduate excelling in his chosen career, he embodies many aspects of achievement. But his beginnings were anything but ordinary. “My grandfather was part of the refugees that sought asylum after the Vietnam War,” Moua remembers. “I left Laos at ten, arrived in Green Bay, and stepped into a whole new world.”

Until that day, Moua had never really left his subtropical village before a mid-winter arrival in Green Bay. “Everything was covered in snow; it was all white, just white,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what snow was. I mean, people told me it could get really cold here, but the snow was higher and the weather colder than what I could imagine.”

Climate shock aside, Moua adapted enthusiastically to his new life—especially school. “The importance of education was always stressed at home,” Moua shares. “My parents, who never had the chance to attend school themselves, pushed me to seize the educational opportunities here, reminding me not to waste this great opportunity.”

In high school, Moua’s world further expanded. He played a pivotal role in his family’s day-to-day negotiations with their new homeland—”I was the translator, the go-between. Anytime there was a form, a letter, anything in English, that was me.” He also found his academic niche and avidly planned for college. “I was part of a club called Mac Forward,” he explains, “where we would discuss university choices and how to prepare for it.”

Moua was crafting a pathway to the future—but had yet to truly reconnect with the past. The connection to his relatives, especially on his father’s side, was distanced by time and early separation. “They moved to the United States as part of a program when I was two; when I arrived in Green Bay, they were like strangers to me.”

Despite the early days of feeling like an outsider and his memories of Laos growing more distant, the familial bonds remained strong. “My dad, his brothers, and their families… they all relocated to the United States. Now, everyone’s here in Green Bay,” he explains. His family’s collective journey mirrors that of many Hmong families, a story of resettlement and building a new life in a new land. But others stayed back in Laos and forged lives there.

In Laos, the education system was starkly different. “If you weren’t selected to advance each year, you could remain stuck at the same level, sometimes with 12 or 13-year-olds in third or fourth grade.” But it was also in Laos, still waiting to immigrate to America, that Moua’s affinity for computers began to take hold.

His dad gave him a simple self-contained video game. “It was a magic crystal box to me at that time,” Moua recalls. It was also the ‘magic crystal’ that introduced him to the world of computing, which eventually evolved into Moua earning a degree in Computer Science from UW-Green Bay, being named UW-Green Bay Student Employee of the Year and being hired by the University as a web developer.

Moua’s commitment to his role at the University and his community connection is deeply personal. “This isn’t just a job,” he emphasizes, “it’s where my journey’s milestones have been laid, where I now help pave the way for others.” However, his connection to his ancestral homeland was shaped by early separation and the fracturing of a culture due to global events. “I don’t know the detail because they left Laos when I was very young,” Moua acknowledges.

“I was born in Laos, moved to Green Bay when I was ten years old and started school in 4th grade.” So returning to Laos to reconnect with his extended family became a significant aspect of his personal journey.

The solution? A month-long family reunion. “Last December, my family returned to Laos, just to revisit some family over there,” Moua recalls. “Part of me wanted to really experience Laos again, to see the village where I grew up.”

Now his culture shock was thrown in reverse. “It’s a small country village, surrounded by rice fields and wetlands,” he says. “I knew I had to return, to understand the land that I left when I was a boy.” What he realized was that the land and people he had left had also changed. “They were living their life differently from the way I remembered.” One cousin had graduated college and worked at an electrical plant. Another owned a clothing shop.

This was not just a personal sojourn; it was a family affair. “We were a group, roughly 10 or 11 of us. We even had a big traditional ceremony to welcome us back, everyone (about 30 relatives) gathered at my uncle’s house.” The reunion began with a Neng ceremony called to honor both the young and the old. The ceremony, deeply rooted in his heritage, was an act of spiritual welcome. “It’s a kind of welcome back.”

“A shaman leads the ceremony by communicating with the spirits,” Moua explains. The offering of an animal was central to the celebration. “So for our occasion, a pig was chosen as the catalyst,” Moua recounts. After the ritual, the offered animal joins the celebration as the entrée, symbolizing a communal feast to celebrate the reunion.

But there was even more celebrating in store with long-separated cousins—many married, with careers and children of their own. “Seeing them again, living their lives differently from how I remember, was a heartfelt experience,” reflects Moua.

Having never experienced Laos beyond life in his village, Moua and cousins embarked on a road trip. “We set out on a sightseeing adventure,” he recalls. Their jaunt included a stop at Vang Vieng, a small town nestled along the Nam Song River in Laos. Surrounded by striking limestone mountains and caves, Moua and company embraced a new role—as tourists.

And it was amidst the rugged terrain, that Moua discovered a new passion—rock climbing. Although it was his first time tackling such heights, he remembers the experience being both physically demanding and exhilarating. “But the most terrifying part,” he recalls, “was when you’re almost at the peak of the mountain, clinging to little tips of rocks as you climb, and realizing just how steep it is.” But at the top, his reward was the opportunity to reflect on his homeland from an entirely fresh perspective. “The view was very breathtaking.”

What gives you a spark?

“What motivates me most is looking forward to being able to assist people and see the outcome of it. I think that sense of achievement and accomplishment is what just makes me feel more alive and feel more connected to the community.”

Why will you never stop learning?

“In my field there’s always something new to learn—a coding style, new methods for tackling problems and coming up with solutions. I also love learning new magic tricks!”

Can you think of like a lesson that life has taught you?

“In Laos, I met a very elderly woman when I was visiting our old house back in the village. She told me I should remember that there are people in my village that will always remember me, and so too should I keep them in my thought. I should never forget where I am from, and that the village is where my roots begin, and there will always be people there waiting to see me again. I think in that sense she helped me to feel closer to my roots and that no matter where I am, I’m still part of the Hmong community.”

At UW-Green Bay, every person has the power to Rise. No matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you want to be. We invite you to read more Rise Stories about people from all walks of life who are blazing a brighter future for our region.

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