“I remember in first grade when I would not write my last name. I would not tell anyone that I was Vietnamese because I was ashamed of being from that background.”
Dr. Tu-Uyen Nguyen, associate professor, California State University, Fullerton
These were some of the words Dr. Tu-Uyen Nguyen, an associate professor in the Asian American studies department at California State University, Fullerton, shared during the 2022 Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month virtual forum on May 24.
As the latest in OCDE’s series of online colloquiums hosted by County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares to reflect the theme “Know My Name, Face and Story,” the forum brought together a panel of distinguished speakers who spoke from their memories of personal stories and perspectives on building student agency, strengthening democracy and fortifying the workforce.
“More than one in five residents of Orange County identifies as Asian American or Pacific Islander, and this month we are incredibly proud to highlight their cultural, social, academic and economic contributions,” Dr. Mijares said. “Our latest online colloquium will be a celebration of our AAPI communities, including our students. At the same time, it is an opportunity to continue an ongoing dialogue about the future of our county and its educational systems with the help of distinguished voices who can share their own unique experiences, insight and perspectives.”
Dr. Nguyen recalled being a quiet child when her family immigrated to the United States after escaping war-torn Vietnam on a boat. They eventually resettled in Virginia, where her parents enrolled her into a school. Educators placed her in the English as a secondary language program.
She was one of two Vietnamese students on campus. While the school was a place that made her feel different from her peers, she found refuge in a teacher whose words and actions left a lasting impression on her.
“I didn’t speak a word of English, and I didn’t say a single word throughout the whole first year of school, but she stayed with me after school and tutored me,” Dr. Nguyen shared. “She encouraged me and told me that I could be something. Even though I might not have felt like I belonged at the time, she told me that I had potential.”
Nguyen was joined by other speakers including Anaheim Union High School District teacher Dr. Jeff Kim, Principal Dr. Isaac Huang from the Conejo Valley Unified School District, Biola University professor Dr. Kimmie Tang and Segerstrom High School senior Avery Ngo.
While their stories were different, the panelists did share similar beliefs, such as the need to create a diverse population of Asian American and Pacific Islander educators, leaders and role models in classrooms and higher education, as well as opportunities for people to share their stories without being judged or made to feel like they are different.
“We’re constantly trying to figure out our identity, and I see that in a lot of my students. I think it’s so important to get to know them,” Dr. Nguyen said.
Decades after Nguyen relocated to the country with her family, and years after the other speakers settled into their professional roles, many of the same feelings they had around having to figure out their place in their communities have carried on to younger generations.
The last speaker in the forum was Segerstrom High School senior Avery Ngo, who will be graduating and heading to University of California, Los Angeles, where she will experience leaving her home in Orange County.
“Living here, I’ve come to acknowledge that there’s a certain privilege in Orange County especially because demographically we are so rich in people of Asian descent,” Ngo said. “It’s because we live in this bubble that I sometimes forget how the outside world actually perceives us.”
While sharing stories of pain and resilience might be difficult for people who have long felt silenced, the panelists agreed it can be liberating for the soul.
For those who were unable to attend, a video recording of the forum can be viewed above.