During Vung’s childhood in Vietnam, she spent her days finding food, helping her mother with chores, enjoying the natural world, and caring for her younger sister. So strong was her desire to learn that when a government kindergarten opened in her village, she begged her mom to let her attend even though at 10 she’d be the oldest in the class.
She soon learned to read and write in Vietnamese, her second language. However, she learned to read and write Jarai, the Montagnard language she had been speaking her whole life, by being in the church choir. Then, at age 13, Vung and her family left for the U.S. to join her father, who had to flee the oppression in Vietnam that remained many years after the war.
“Because my father was already here, there was no resettlement process for us. With the language barrier, we felt very isolated until we visited the Glen Haven Center, part of UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians, where I learned English from the tutors,” Vung says. “The center has had a big impact in my life. I met UNCG students and many Bonner scholars from Guilford College,” she says.
Changing Her Plans
By the time Vung was a junior in high school, she was planning to attend a two-year school because she wasn’t confident with her English. However, when she visited Guilford for a community event, James Shields and Susan May from the Bonner Center for Community Service and Learning asked if she thought about applying there.
“I hadn’t considered it until that moment. Their encouragement made the difference, so I applied,” she says. “When I got in, I was very excited. I’m so grateful for the Bonner scholarship and my work-study plan.”
The support and encouragement didn’t end there. Andrew Young, a staff member at the Bonner Center, was a mentor to Vung and challenged her to make three to five friends within her first weeks in college. “I was a shy person and didn’t think friends were important, but thanks to Andrew’s advice, I have good friends from Guilford I still talk to.”
The late Doug Smith, a Writing Center tutor, was also instrumental in motivating Vung, a Peace and Conflict Studies major. “Guilford is known to be a writing-intensive school so I was worried I’d struggle. Everything took so much longer for me, but Doug showed me how to make my sentences better,” she explains.
Coming Full Circle
Not long after graduation Vung was offered a job at a familiar place — the Center for New North Carolinians — as the refugee health coordinator. Her tri-lingual skills (Vietnamese, Jarai, and English) are useful to the thousands of refugees from the Montagnard community seeking help in Greensboro.
“We serve the underserved community members, mostly adults who are uninsured and usually not employed. Doing this gets them access to the health care system and any needs like a dentist appointment.” She also ensures that interpreters speaking 15 different languages are available for refugees needing medical care.
“I’m proud to work at a nonprofit. Because I love what I do, it doesn’t feel like work,” she says. There’s another perk to her job; she earns one free class per semester at UNCG. Vung is taking advantage of that by working toward her master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies.
One day, Vung would like to be part of policymaking that impacts immigrant and refugee communities. If the past is any indication, that day will come at just the right moment.
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