University of California at Berkeley

Four Siblings Travel a Long, Hard Road From Vietnam to Studies at Berkeley

 by Gretchen Kell

Hindered from attending college in Vietnam after their father's imprisonment there by the Communists, four siblings who left their homeland in 1992 are new students this fall at Berkeley.

For four family members to attend the same college at the same time is rare, but these two brothers and two sisters are even more special. Thi, Chuong, Huy and Nghi Doan all are juniors taking the same classes and pursuing the same major molecular and cell biology.

They also study many hours together outside of class and live in the same house, with their parents, in Oakland.

"People are always surprised that we're brothers and sisters and are so close," said Huy Doan, 25. "But if we each were on our own, it would be harder. We know what we want to do and have each other for support. We also treat each other the way we treat our friends."

In 1975, when South Vietnam fell into the hands of the Communists, Khoa Doan, a former officer with the South Vietnamese military, was exiled to a concentration camp. The military took away the house it had given his family to live in and made it difficult for his wife, Thuy, to find work as a language teacher. Instead, she worked odd jobs to support her six children.

In 1981, after spending six years in the prison camp, Khoa Doan's citizenship was taken away by the government for one year. By that time, his oldest daughters, Trang and Thi, had had trouble getting admitted to college because of his imprisonment.

Thi, now 29, had taken an admissions exam for a university in Vietnam, but although her scores were higher than those of some of her friends, she still could not get in.

As the years passed, the prejudice against prisoners such as Khoa Doan lessened, but Doan and his wife knew their children would have a better chance of attending college in America.

Through an agreement between the United States and Vietnam, the Doan family received a loan from the U.S. government to immigrate to America. Leaving their eldest son behind, they headed for California.

The family settled in Oakland, where a friend helped set them up in an apartment. Four of the five Doan children Thi, Chuong, Huy and Nghi eventually attended Laney College, a community college in Oakland, for two and a half years. They also studied English at an adult school in Oakland. Their sister Trang, 31, is employed by Sacramento County's Department of Human Assistance.

"Step by step," said Huy, "I worked to overcome the obstacle of learning a new language. I learned that the secret to being successful and achieving my goals is tenacity and hard work."

After taking prerequisite courses for biochemistry at Laney, where Thi and Chuong earned a 3.9 grade-point average, the siblings set their sights on transferring to the University of California. They were accepted at each of the four campuses they applied to, but they collectively decided on Berkeley.

"It offered us an excellent education," said Huy. "People work really hard here. And UC Berkeley is not too far from our house. We can go back and forth to take care of our mom."

"Our mother is on kidney dialysis," said Nghi, 23. "We think it's better to be here."

Planning careers in immunology, pharmacy and medicine, the siblings are preparing by studying molecular and cell biology. They especially like their human development and physical chemistry classes.

"Adults as Learners," a class they are taking through Berkeley's Re-entry Program, has been helpful as the students adjust to life on a big campus and continue to polish their English.

"This first semester, all of us feel as if everything is so new. It makes us nervous," said Thi. "But this class teaches us every aspect of being a new student here, even how to manage our time."


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