UC Berkeley press release

NEWS RELEASE, 11/13/96

Four new juniors at UC Berkeley are siblings chasing the same dream after leaving Vietnam to seek a new life

by Gretchen Kell

Berkeley -- 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 the University of California 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 wife knew their children would have a better chance of attending college in America.

Through an agreement between the U.S. 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 UC 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."

Chuong, 27, said she and her sister and brothers study during almost all of their free time. They review notes from lectures, perfect their English and quiz each other for tests.

"Getting an education is the only way to survive in America," she said. "My parents told me, 'Where there is a will, there is a way.'"

"Mom says you can lose everything," Nghi added, "but you will still have your knowledge."

While the siblings joke that, in spending so much time together, people might not ask them out on dates thinking they are two couples rather than two brothers and two sisters, they see many pluses to working as a unit.

"Our English is still not perfect," said Huy. "If one of us misses a point made in a lecture, perhaps my sister heard it, and we can go home and share the notes together."

Helen Johnson, campus coordinator of UC Berkeley re-entry programs and services, said that Thi, Chuong, Huy and Nghi bring to her Adults as Learners class, "a sweetness and joy that reflects their appreciation for having the opportunity to come to America and to study at Berkeley. They have worked very hard to get here."

An immigrant herself, Johnson said she sees her own reflection in the siblings.

"Like them, I did not have the opportunity to attend university until I came to America," she said. "The realization of that dream has challenged me to help keep the dream alive for others."

Although the Doan family left Vietnam, the siblings said they miss their home and would consider returning there someday to apply what they are learning at UC Berkeley.

"We love our country of Vietnam, and America is our second home," said Huy. "If the government allowed us to return, there are many Vietnamese people who have attended college in the United States that would also like to go back to share their knowledge. But it's too early to tell what we will do."

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