Minh Vu - anecdote

The Long Path of a Short Journey

 I never received my high school diploma.  The war interrupted my senior year.  After the New Year, the was spread quickly to within a short distance of my school so the school was forced to close after the second week of January 1975.

One day during the summer vacation before my 11th grade, I had told my mother of my dream to go to America someday and graduate from an American university.  Hearing her oldest child’s dream, she did not say much but agreed that American universities provide the very best education. I knew it was financially impossible for her so I told her that my dream was like a little boy telling his mother of a toy he likes.  It does not matter much if he does not get it but that dreaming about it brings come enjoyment.

She had sacrificed so much to put my brother and me through school.  She had sent us away when we were twelve years old to a boarding school where we had an opportunity to continue our education because 8th grade was the highest grade our local school had offered.  I knew this was a great sacrifice for my parents as it would be for any parent.  My parents regularly worked 10 hours a day, my father fishing and my mother selling small items in the marketplaces, to provide just the basic needs of our family.

My mother’s goals for her children were different than most of the other parents in our village.  She wanted so much for her children to get a good education and have an opportunity to improve their lives.  While continuing my education into high school, I sometimes felt strange because most of my friends had quit school after the 5th grade to help their families.  I knew my family was poor too so I felt guilty that I was not helping my family. 

The sound of gunshots in the distance abruptly disturbed the normal activities of a beautiful morning.  It was the last day of April 1975.  The news of the North Communist Army approaching the village had sent everyone into panic.  The North Vietnamese soldiers had moved in behind a group of the resistant South Vietnamese soldiers.  In a hurry, people cramped into their wooden fishing boats and headed out to the Pacific Ocean.  My parents, a younger sister and I were still inside our house when the fighting broke out between the two sides.  After the fighting was over, I ran out of the house just to see the river, once congested and busy with hundreds of boars, now completely empty.  The reunion of the divided country brought separation to our family of seven children.  My heart ached thinking of my three younger brothers and two sisters, ages 2 to 16, had gone.  My mother, a strong woman, did not cry much but immediately worked with my father on a plan to go find her lost children.   Though we searched frantically for three terrifying day we could not find them.  We knew we had to leave so my father found a small boat and, with the boat owner and his wife, my parents, my sister and I quietly snuck out of the country in the early morning hour hoping that my other brothers and sisters had escaped with other villagers.  We left our country in the first week of May 1975 after the fall of Saigon.

We did not know where we were headed, only that we needed to escape from living under Communist rule. My parents and others from our village had escaped from them some twenty years earlier in 1954.

After 2 days at sea, we were picked up by an American ship and were taken to Wake Island.  Then two months later we were taken to the Guam Islands.  Our hearts sill ached to find my other brothers and sisters so it was a wonderful surprise when we found them in Guam.  We had a tearful reunion when we were all together again.  After several more weeks waiting for the legal immigration documents, we then were transferred to Camp Pendleton, California.

My family was sponsored by a Catholic Parish and was sent to Tucson, Arizona near the end of October 1975.  I became the speaker and the interpreter for the family even though I could not verbally communicate with our sponsors and other English-speaking people.  I had learned some English in high school but the pronunciation of English words in America were far different that what I had learned in school from various Vietnamese English teachers.  The communication method for the first three months of our life in America was in writing.

We lived in Tucson for six months then moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where we were qualified for a four-bedroom unit in a government housing project for low-income families.  There were about 20 other Vietnamese families living in that same housing project and we happily formed a small community to help and support each other.

By that time I could speak English well enough to just get by.  My English skills were still very poor but quickly found that my English was better than most of the other Vietnamese immigrants.  The community needed someone to help people with translation so I armed myself with a little Vietnamese-English/English-Vietnamese dictionary and volunteered as an interpreter for that small community.  I went with the needy people to the doctor offices, public service offices, DMV, and hospitals.  Amazingly after six months, my English skills and vocabulary improved tremendously.

For the fall semester of 1976, I enrolled at a college in Kansas City. After spending two semesters studying English in the ESL Program, I moved on and enrolled part time at another college in Kansas City to further my education.

The cold weather in Kansas City was tough for my mother so my parents decided to move to California. Not wanting to leave behind the girl I had fallen in love with five months earlier, I asked my parents’ permission to marry her.  My parents granted my request with a concern about my education. My mother reminded me of my dream when I was in the 11th grade and told me that I was now in America.  My future wife also expressed a similar concern when I proposed the hurried marriage.  On thatday in 1978, I promised my future wife and my mother that I would finish school.

Immediately after we got married, we all moved to California.  I enrolled at a community college in Santa Ana, California the fall semester in 1978.  I worked odd jobs and planned my classes around my work schedule.  Two weeks after our first anniversary, our son, a handsome boy, was born.  At one time I had classes at three different colleges.  It was hard.  I flunked and repeated some classes.

Life was still difficult for my parents.  My mother wanted to open a family restaurant and once more they decided to move.  In January of 1982, we moved with them to Fort Worth, Texas.  Obtaining a university degree at that time was not my top priority, but I found time to continue my education at the University of Texas at Arlington as soon as I found work.

The joy of the arrival of our second child, a beautiful girl, was diminished some by the realization of our new responsibilities.  I dropped out of school during the second semester at UTA.

In 1984, we left my parents and moved back to California.  Fortunately, I landed a good job with a large manufacturing company as a machinist.  We were very happy with my new job and I dedicated my life to working and raising a family.  In 1986, my wife gave birth to another beautiful daughter.

The thought of a college degree never stopped bothering me during the 10-year break.  The opportunity to do something about it again came when my company offered to move a portion of the workforce to Ogden, Utah.  In April 1994, we left the California life style and headed to Utah with the thought of going back to school to once again continue my education.    

After more than a decade out of school, I enrolled at Weber State University in the fall of 1994.  The winter quarter of 1995 I registered for only one night class:  Technical Writing, because my communication skills were still a little weak.  What happened in the first class period started raising my doubts about my ability but then also started building my trust in the faculty at WSU.  After writing his name, the office hours and the course number on the board, the instructor asked the students to write a short paragraph about instructing some aliens whom we could not verbally communicate with to land their aircraft on the Salt Flats. I took out a sheet of paper and started to look around.  There were about 15 students in the class and most of them were in their early 20’s and noticed that everyone got busy writing the paper right away.  I asked myself lots of questions.  I did not need to torture myself.  I was an old man.  I thought of myself being the alien whom the other students were writing about.

I was the last student to turn in the paper.  The only thing I had written on that sheet of paper was my name.  I explained to the professor that I was a returning student and had just moved to Utah and did not know what the Salt Flats were.  I asked him if I needed to drop the class.  Calmly, he told me he just wanted to understand the students’ level of writing ability.  He then advised me to not drop the class but to wait for a couple of weeks before making my decision.  I hung on, worked hard, got help, finished the class and surprised myself with an A.

After two years at WSU, I got my Associates degree.  I was satisfied with my achievement and I told my advisor that I was done with school but he kept telling me I was not done.  I told him I needed to take break to think about it.

He was right.  The feeling of satisfaction was short lived because I knew the associate’s degree was not my goal and more importantly, I knew it was not what I had promised my mother and my wife.

Once again, I decided to go back to school after another a four-year break.  I came back in the fall semester of 2000.  My advisor, Professor Larry Leavitt, welcomed me with a big smile, as he had known that some day I would come back to see him.  He helped me feel confident and determined to finish my bachelor’s degree.

The spring semester of 2001, I declared my major as Manufacturing Engineering Technology and was introduced to another great advisor, Professor Robert Milner, who quickly made me feel comfortable.  After reviewing my record with my new advisor, I knew I had to finish the degree.  For the first time in my career, I carefully planned my work schedule around my classes.  This time I also registered for summer classes because, for a personal reason, I wanted to graduate by the spring semester of 2003.

Luck was on my side; I will graduate this semester, the fall semester of 2002.  I feel great.  I have achieved my goal, the goal I had long dreamed of as a student in Vietnam.  Finally, I have finished my four-year degree at an American university even though it has taken me 25 years.  And even more importantly, I have kept the promise I made quarter of century ago to the two women I most dearly love.  This will also be a gift of my heart to my wife on our 25th wedding anniversary, April 2003.

I proudly call Weber State University my school and I am very grateful to my fellow classmates, the many instructors and professors at Weber State University and especially the faculty of the Manufacturing & Mechanical Engineering Technology Department who have helped me along the way.

Minh Vu
December 2002