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Cultural Identity and Allegiance Among Vietnamese Students and Their Organizations at the University of California, Irvine: 1980–1990

by Thai-Huy Nguyen & Marybeth Gasman - 2015

Background: Within the canon of Asian American histories and histories of student activism, little attention is given to the Vietnamese students at the University of California at Irvine, who came together to advocate for the well-being of Vietnamese refugees after the end of the Vietnam War. This study examines this history and discusses the implications for understanding the unique histories that shape the lives of our increasingly diverse student populations.

Purpose: The objective of this study is to unearth and examine the experiences of Vietnamese students at the University of California at Irvine after the Vietnam War, between 1980 and 1990, and how their student organizations functioned to help them make sense of their personal losses as well as mobilize their efforts to highlight the plight of Vietnamese refugees.

Research Design: Primary and secondary sources were used to support this historical analysis.

Data Collection: Archival material came from the University of California at Irvine’s Southeast Asian Archive.

Conclusions: This study pushes back against popular historical narratives that either ignore or blur the distinct experiences, traditions, and political and economic statuses among the U.S. Asian population. We demonstrate how Vietnamese students were active in their pursuit to improve the social and political conditions for their community. Moreover, this history brings forward very critical issues of student organizing and civic engagement and immigration.

On the heels of the civil rights movement, the end of the Vietnam War saw a mass migration of Southeast Asians to the United States. The journeys of primarily Vietnamese refugees, forced to escape their war-torn country, many of them by boat, were rife with risk, uncertainty, death, and, at times, salvation.  In an attempt to explain the experiences of these people, especially at the mark of resettlement, dominant narratives offer a single story of assimilation into American communities while disregarding the ways in which many Southeast Asians actively rebuilt their communities and reinforced rather than severed their connection to Vietnam. The purposes of this historical study are to extend and push back at these narratives and to bring to light the contributions that Vietnamese students at the University of California at Irvine made toward their communities and to those hoping to join them.

Far too often, national narratives on Asians and Asian Americans have the grave tendency to homogenize historically and culturally distinct ethnic groups. These narratives are reinforced by the model minority myth, which disposes Asians and Asian Americans to an image of universal academic and economic achievement (Chang, Park, Lin, Poon, & Nakanishi, 2007; Teranishi, 2010). Each ethnic group—from the Chinese miners of 1850 searching for gold to the Vietnamese Boat People of 1978–1979 (Takaki, 1989)—possesses unique histories in the United States. Many Asians immigrated to the States for the purpose of opportunity and the potential for economic mobility, and others out of fear of persecution as a result of civil unrest and war.

On entry to the United States, citizens from Asian countries were commonly subjected to prejudicial legislation, such as the National Origins Act of 1924, or the forced internment of Japanese Americans in 1941(Gordon & Okihiro, 2008), which undermined individual minority rights and reflected a growing sense of fear of a power shift among the majority. This current study adds to the variation in the histories of Asians in the United States and in American higher education in several ways by providing counternarratives in three areas. First, it serves to tell a history from the perspective of Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese Americans, whose activism unfolded at the University of California at Irvine (UCI), as opposed to a historical narrative of lacking of agency (Freeman, 1996; Pham, 2003). Second, the narratives of those descending from East Asia (China and Japan) dominate Asian American histories (Takaki, 1989; Tamura, 2001); little is known about the lived experiences of those from Southeast Asia and the influence of the Vietnam War on their livelihood in the States. And third, histories of American higher education (Cohen, 2007; Thelin, 2004) speak very little to the relationship between Asian and Asian American students, and colleges and universities beyond the era between 1965 and 1974, of the Asian American movement (Wei, 1993). These contributions matter a great deal because they discourage pernicious stereotypes of Asian communities and provide greater context in which to understand them. Recent research (Museus, 2013; Museus & Chang, 2009; Teranishi, 2010) has pushed against misconceptions of Asian communities as singular and homogenous and has called for researchers and institutions to pay greater attention to the historical and cultural differences within Asian communities that bring to bear on the varied choices and educational outcomes of their students. For instance, 38.1% of Vietnamese people in the United States 25 years of age and older do not possess a high school diploma, whereas the national and Asian American average is 19.6% (National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, 2008). Put simply, historical narratives and empirical research that base their claims and findings on Asians and Asian American students as a singular, homogenous community risk marginalizing ethnic populations that need support. To make sense of the contemporary social issues related to Vietnamese students, one must understand how the Vietnam War—the cause of mass migration of Vietnamese refugees to the United States—played a role in developing the conditions in which they are presently educated.

The 15 years after the war was a critical era in U.S. history. It is during this period that the United States had to contend with and manage the consequences of actions by ensuring that the many who wanted to leave Vietnam could do so with the fewest possible challenges. During the first (1975) and second (1978–1979) waves of mass immigration from Vietnam, families and friends were forced to separate for both safety and logistical reasons, outcomes of the aftermath of the Vietnam War. If they were fortunate, they would find themselves reuniting in the same host country and perhaps in close proximity. But immediate reconciliation with family and close friends was never truly certain because navigating political and bureaucratic policies, especially in the English language, made it challenging and hopeless. However, this study is not a common tale of victimhood. Indeed, the following narrative is an attempt, according to Linda Vo, associate professor of Asian American studies at UCI, “to counter these narrow perceptions of the Vietnamese (as victims) who live in America and to examine their complex connections of Vietnam and its history” (Vo, 2003, p. x). The current study asks the following questions: During an era of mass migration from Southeast Asia and disagreement among the world’s most powerful nations in managing an outflow of refugees, what were the experiences of Vietnamese students, many recent refugees themselves, at UCI between 1980 and 1990? What role did student organizations play in the lives of these students, and how did these organizations help them make sense of an era of mass migration and resettlement? In the case of Vietnamese undergraduate and graduate students at UCI, their efforts to preserve their cultural heritage, rebuild and reconnect damaged communities by working with other colleges and universities, and advocate for the rights of future refugees serve as evidence to support a narrative that deviates from one of victimhood and helplessness. The article is organized first to provide broader context to situate the history of these students within the histories of racial and ethnic movements, and second to offer background of the historical issues and challenges of Vietnamese refugees. The main body of the narrative is organized under two student organizations—the Vietnamese Student Association and Project Ngoc—which are examined to answer the aforementioned questions.  


During the 1960s, campuses at the University of California and California State University systems observed waves of student unrest and activism that transformed the relationship between students and the greater university community; it opened the possibility for students to redefine, contribute to, and manage their own education and use their college experience as a platform to advocate for the social health of surrounding communities (Maeda, 2009; T-H. Nguyen & Gasman, in press; Wei, 1993).

From the onset of the Asian American movement, Asian students, primarily those of Japanese and Chinese descent (Louie & Omatsu, 2001; Maeda, 2009; Wei, 1993), became increasingly aware of structural forces on campus that fortified discriminatory practices against minorities and mitigated minority representation. Heavily influenced by the Black Power movement and La Raza, student movements that supported the Black and Chicano/a agenda for social equality, the Asian American movement reflected a key moment when Asians realized that “the” struggle did not solely rest with Black Americans, but in the hands of all people of color (Maeda, 2009; Wei, 1993); the battleground included more than two groups of stakeholders. The path toward recognition and equality was paved by the ardent demand for representation in academic departments and course offerings through peaceful strikes and sit-ins; the emergence of Asian American studies centralized the contemporary experiences of Asian Americans and challenged Western histories that derided minority viewpoints and contributions and the reimagining of a university’s mission to serve local and disadvantaged communities (T-H. Nguyen & Gasman, in press; Wei, 1993).

Unbeknownst to many, a small but formidable community of Vietnamese immigrants existed in the United States before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Vu Pham’s (2003) extensive historiography on Vietnamese students (pre-1975), the only one to our knowledge, offers an account of how they developed meaningful and supportive communities and the ways in which the Vietnam War shaped their experiences in the United States. Sponsored by the U.S. government to combat the effects and expansion of communism, between 1960 and 1974, around 18,000 Vietnamese students and professionals and their families migrated to the United States. Students created affinity groups, hosted cultural festivities, and disseminated newspapers and magazines to help Vietnamese in the United States and non-Vietnamese understand the war abroad. According to Pham, these students “acted as agents of change by aspiring to transform perceptions and opinions concerning Vietnam, as well as policies on the war itself” (p. 146). But what of the group of Vietnamese students after the war?

What follows is a narrative of the experiences of Vietnamese students at UCI, framed by their participation in student groups and activities from 1980 to 1990, a period 5 years after the end of the Vietnam War. What is currently offered in the history of Vietnamese immigrants in America supports a skewed picture of a suffering community whose members escaped a country that is perceived as uncivilized and anti-American. Although many Vietnamese immigrants and their families suffered the atrocities of war and escape and hardships of resettlement, current scholarship has focused on Vietnamese Americans  “as a group of victimized migrants characterized by suffering and the struggles to merely survive and adapt to U.S. society” (Pham, 2003, p. 138). Without denying the hardships that many new immigrants experienced in resettling in the States by negotiating a new socioeconomic and cultural landscape, we offer a narrative of agency and solidarity on the part of college students that is inspired by these hardships.

The activities of Vietnamese students and their student organizations at UCI reflected a burgeoning consciousness and desire to be civically engaged for the purpose of educating others and gathering support for the recognition and rights of refugees. Participation in these events and organizations gave students, many of them past refugees, a space in which to cope with a sense of loss and the opportunity to advocate for the well-being and rights of those still stuck at sea or in temporary resettlement camps, where many awaited asylum decisions from developed countries. Using primary sources—student newsletters, meeting minutes, advertisements, poetry, personal accounts, and mainstream periodicals—from the UC Irvine Special Collections Archives on Southeast Asians, we demonstrate that many Vietnamese students came together to develop and expand organizations and events to preserve their heritage, reflect on the impact of war on their future, and advance a political agenda to bring about greater awareness of, and educate the university and broader local communities about, refugees.


According to Takaki (1989), when Saigon fell in 1975, the first wave of refugees immigrated to the United States. Unlike other Asian groups that came before them, the Vietnamese did not immigrate by choice, but out of fear of political persecution. By the end of that year, 130,000 Vietnamese refugees—the majority of whom were from the educated class and worked closely with the French and Americans—had resettled in America. The second wave took place in 1977 and lasted until 1979, when an ending total of over 200,000 immigrants, “boat people,” fled Vietnam. Many escaped in poorly made and cramped wooden boats, fighting off Thai pirates who pillaged their remaining resources and means for survival and raped the women on board; the hope was that a neighboring country would provide them temporary asylum. In the words of one refugee, “this was the price they had to pay for freedom” (Chan, 1991, p. 21).

A great majority of the second wave consisted of the poor and working class; they were also most at risk of dying while attempting to escape communist-ruled Vietnam. Because the second wave of refugees did not have connections to the greater political community, attempting to escape Vietnam could be a death sentence: moving through thick jungles swamped with land mines, traveling during the night with officers patrolling the coast and shooting at first sight, or simply succumbing to starvation and thirst. At times, neighboring countries Thailand and Malaysia exercised antirefugee policies and pushed many of the refugees back to sea (Suhrke, 1983; Tai, 1982). Malaysia, for instance, “deployed a maritime squadron to keep refugee boats out if found heading for Malaysia shores” (p. 59). Anyone who succeeded had a greater chance of living, but they still had to contend with criminal charges of illegal entry, the poor conditions of the camps, and the uncertainty of the future.

Refugees who survived the dangerous journey out of Vietnam found refuge mainly off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines, where they were placed in temporary camps. American nongovernmental organizations such as the American Red Cross provided medical treatment and assistance in the process of resettlement in other countries, including Australia, France, and the United States (Takaki, 1989). Their final destinations were largely determined by nonprofit organizations and missionaries—such as United States Catholic Conference, Lutheran Social Services, and the International Rescue Committee—which paired an individual or family with an American family sponsor (Freeman, 1996). According to the Social Security Bulletin, as “one of four U.S. reception centers set up in April and May of 1975” (1980, p. 11), Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base processed over 45,000 refugees (Desbarats & Holland, 1983). At the time, almost one third “resettled in neighboring Orange County” (p. 27). The initial and large influx of refugees into this Southern California region became the start of an expanding ethnic enclave that provided the means for new refugees to resettle in a new country while minimizing the risks of alienation.

Orange County, located 50 miles from Camp Pendleton, became a popular destination for Vietnamese immigrants because of the complex and large networks for services (Aguilar-San Juan, 2009), resources, and economic opportunity, and an emphasis on, and greater likelihood for, family reunification. First, Orange County offered “generous government assistance” (Desbarats & Holland, 1983, p. 27), which, coupled with low unemployment rates of 4.3% in 1981, offered immigrants a greater likelihood of finding employment. However, linguistic challenges made it difficult for many to maintain steady employment outside Vietnamese enclaves; as a consequence, many resided near already established communities.  Many turned toward entrepreneurial opportunities that gave way to new businesses to expand Vietnamese enclaves throughout the county and offer manageable employment for new immigrants. Second, these businesses became financially feasible by pooling the resources of relatives and friends (Aguilar-San Juan, 2009). The formation of these businesses demonstrated the importance of kinship and community—values that, in spite of linguistic barriers, became the actionable means of economic survival. Such values were mirrored in the actions of Vietnamese students the UCI campus.

Founded “in the fall of 1965 on 1,510 acres of Orange County ranch land three miles from the Pacific Ocean” (Pelfrey, 2004, p. 101), UCI became an ideal choice for Vietnamese immigrants, in terms of both academic quality and proximity to the then-emerging Vietnamese enclave and their families (Aguilar-San Juan, 2009). And with other neighboring regional universities and colleges, both four- and two-year institutions, Vietnamese students at UCI found ample opportunities for collaboration and for the advancement of their aims and goals.


The Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) at UCI was founded in 1977 (Newsbrief, 1983), only two years after the end of the war. The VSA stood as the pivotal student organization for Vietnamese students interested in joining and cultivating “a strong social and educational foundation for the rapid growing Vietnamese students population at UCI” (Vietnamese Student Conference, 1994, p. 1). Students who joined found solidarity within this association; they were able to share with each other common struggles of resettlement, a yearning to return to their home country, and a sense of concern for the well-being of the Vietnamese community in the States and those trying to escape.

Irvine’s VSA considered it the “voice for all Vietnamese students, both undergraduate and graduate, on campus” (Newsbrief, 1983, pp. 47–50). Its aim was to “preserve and develop the Vietnamese culture, to promote a sense of brotherhood among Vietnamese students, and to establish friendship ties between Vietnamese and other students at UC Irvine.” The association would achieve these goals by “sponsoring a monthly newsletter [and] three major publications per year [and purchasing] a small library of Vietnamese books [for] the University Center.” In addition to hosting athletic activities, the VSA also hosted three annual shows that became large fundraisers for their activities and agenda. By and large, these fundraising activities represented the group’s priorities in supporting their fellow Vietnamese students and educating the university community. In addition to offering tutoring services in a variety of subjects, the VSA hosted Vietnamese language classes “for all who are interested in learning how to read and write Vietnamese” (Vietnamese Student Conference, 1994, p. 1). Many of its campus events and celebrations were centered on Vietnamese holidays and celebrations, such as TET, the Vietnamese New Year, but their intended reach was never limited to its own members. The broader goal was to “touch the entire UCI community” and to educate fellow students, faculty, and staff on the Vietnamese community. In an era when the United States allowed thousands of refugees into the country, which resulted in waves anti-immigration sentiment, the VSA attempted to “strengthen the understanding between Vietnamese students, community, and the UCI administration” (Vietnamese Student Conference, 1994, p. 2).

At times, the VSA would advance its agenda by collaborating with chapters from neighboring institutions. By 1982, these collaborations would transform into a larger regional association, the Union of Vietnamese Student Association of Southern California, which initially included the University of California campuses at Irvine, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego and the California State University campus of Fullerton. In September 11 (Newsbrief, 1983) of the same year, VSAs at UC Irvine, UCLA, the University of Southern California, and California Polytechnic University at Pomona came together to organize a show on the plight of the boat people. Held at the Donald R. Wash Memorial Auditorium in the city of Garden Grove, the Irvine chapter “presented a modern dance number: ‘The Drifting Little Blue Clouds,’” which “depicted the hardship of the Boat People have been experiencing in the open sea” and “a musical show: ‘Trau Cau,’” which “was a traditional tale praising conjugal and brotherly love” (Newsbrief, 1983, pp. 49–50).

The union demonstrated the belief that solidarity and influence came in numbers. On arrival in America, Vietnamese immigrants were dispersed across the country, with families and friends separated from each other because of the varied locations of each family’s or person’s sponsor (Chan, 2006; Freeman, 1996). Coming together under the umbrella of one large organization for several events was one way to maintain greater cultural ties, advocate for the well-being of Vietnamese immigrants, and bring about greater awareness within the university community. According to the union’s monthly magazine, Non Song (Quan Diem Sinh Vien Va Nghia Vu Ti Nan, 1982), its goals and the strategies to achieve them are:


+ To ensure that our nation and the Vietnamese people are the top priority

+ Never accept the communist government in any way

+ Continue to save and promote the Vietnamese culture

+ We stand as a single non-profit entity


+ Working together to help our country

+ Working with other communities to create a stronger Vietnamese community

+ Working together to promote a positive social and educational environment

These students’ concern for their country and people, especially those waiting for asylum or recent immigrants who were in the process of resettlement, was evident in their participation and collaborative efforts to work across regions and institutions. For students at Irvine, the VSA and the broader UVSA represented an opportunity to celebrate their common background and cultural heritage, but, more important—beyond cultural festivities—it provided a platform from which to advance broader action that would impact those on the campus grounds and beyond. What underscored their efforts included their own personal recollections and reflections on the impact of war on themselves and their families, as well as collective political action on behalf of Vietnamese refugees.

Concern for one’s ethnic community, the celebration of its traditions and values, and the opportunity to develop solidarity amid political chaos represent the motives that drove the development and growth of the VSA and UVSA. Ethnic student organizations offer students a sense of familiarity, comfort, and safety, and they operate to reinforce students’ cultural backgrounds and promote a sense of belonging within the broader campus community (Museus, 2008). Such organizations not only signal to students an opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with their peers but also offer the time and space in which students can give expression to their perceptions and experiences (Harper & Quaye, 2007). Although it is difficult to establish if Vietnamese students were marginalized or isolated on campus during the decade after the end of the Vietnam War, the political and social consequences of the war that reverberated through the nation suggest that these students were negatively affected. When a minority group is elevated to the national political discourse and portrayed as a social ill, acts of discrimination and hatred toward them may consequently abound (McBrien, 2005; Peek, 2003). Ethnic student organizations become useful tools to counter the effects of prejudicial acts give voice to their communities’ concerns and provide a platform from which to advocate for their well-being within the campus community (Guiffrida, 2003; Harper & Quaye, 2007; Museus, 2008)

Student Memories: TN, Lai, and Arthur

The Vietnam War forced people to flee from their homes and separate from their families and friends. The VSA functioned as a space in which students shared their personal experiences and struggles in the aftermath of the war. A student, TN (1983) from UCI submitted a poem titled, “A Feeling to Share”:

How cheerful we were, growing up together,

Schooldays were shared with love and laughters.

Dreams were made to last forever

Never once thought we would have to suffer.

Yet dreams were shattered, life was changed.

What remained, since we lost our land?

Where were my loved ones since away I went?

Or have what I asked become nonsense????

The student’s overwhelming sadness for her past life and loss of country was clear. The war had crippled her world and displaced her understanding of it. This expression of loss and the process of mourning spoke to what the VSA symbolized for some students and to the association’s goal of addressing those suffering from the aftermath of the war. Many of those fortunate enough to immigrate to the States did so without their families and friends. As an agrarian culture, Vietnamese families were large and extensive, so a collective escape was difficult and hardly successful. Many families who could not bear the idea of separation risked their lives trying to escape together. When caught by the Viet Cong (Communist soldiers from North Vietnam), families were separated and punished. More cautious families, who learned from the mistakes of others, decided to send off one member at a time. This was the case for TN, who managed to successfully flee by boat. On her one-year anniversary in southern California, she reunited with her family, but that feeling of loss and disorientation lingered. The president of the VSA in 1982, Lai (Non Song), had a similar experience.

Lai was chosen by his parents to escape without the family in 1979. On the third day of his escape, when his party was aimlessly roaming the sea with the hope of reaching the shores of Thailand or Malaysia, the boat encountered Thai pirates. Lai stated,

After taking all our valuables, they chose seven young women on our boat and took them away as their fathers, mothers, husbands, brothers, and sisters moaned. Even though I did not have any valuables to lose, still I felt I lost a lot that day . . . I could not do anything to stop them.

The pains of war and loss, experienced and seen in the eyes of those who escaped with him, became a part of his life that would guide his actions in college. At the end of his memoir, he declared,

I will not forget my responsibility as a Vietnamese who cares about other Vietnamese, especially those who are still in refugee camps in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As the president of the Vietnamese Students Association this year, I have tried my best to help the refugees financially and psychologically. We raised a lot of money from the community around the campus and sent it to the refugee camps . . . I will never forget where I came from.

His willingness to take on the presidency of the VSA was a clear indication that he was committed—even obligated—to improving the conditions that provided safer passage for refugees. Many VSA members understood the challenges to adjustment for recent immigrants and the difficult events that led to their arrival.

Arthur Pandes (1982), a non-Vietnamese student at Irvine, was 14 years old when he was living on a U.S. naval base in the Philippines, where both his parents worked for the Department of Defense. In May 1975, a rush of refugees escaped Vietnam and arrived in Subic Bay, Philippines, where the base was located. Unable to comprehend why the refugees were there, he was distraught by this event. On the recommendation of his history teacher, Arthur, along with his high school friends, “participated in ‘Operation Helping Hand,’ a volunteer effort of military dependents and the American Red Cross, who donated countless hours in the relocation processing of the more than 8,000 Indochinese refugees who arrived in the Philippines from May to August of 1975.” His job entailed keeping the refugee children occupied while their parents were busy filling out the necessary paperwork for resettlement.

With his military dependent ID, Arthur took these children (typically a group of 20), despite the language barrier, to the base where they “had access to all the activities such as the game room and sports equipment.” As time progressed, Arthur’s affinity for this group of children grew. Although he was only a few years ahead, he cared for them like an older brother and understood his role as a critical component of their journey to America. Arthur admitted earlier on that he did not understand why these families and children were stationed there temporarily, or the “Southeast Asian politics,” according to his history teacher. But as many of those families were finally assigned to permanent homes, the majority resettling in United States, Arthur came to realize that “it takes the shape of an open-minded attitude, without selfishness or empty conceit, to only begin to understand the meaning behind people’s actions or another culture’s speech.” When he was senior at UCI, Arthur brought that experience forward in his life as an active member of the VSA.

Rooted in their shared yet distinct experiences and struggles, students at Irvine found their voice and politicized identity as advocates for refugees held in political limbo, but these realizations did not come without a cost to their personal development. TN, Lai, and Arthur all experienced and witnessed the negative effects of war, which had a profound impact and put considerable strain on their outlook and choices. Studies on student immigration populations have reported high levels of depression among Vietnamese immigrant youth, which have been attributed to memories of poverty and war, the complicated process of escape, resettlement and adaptation to the social mores of one’s new country, including the acquisition of the English language, and inconsistent communication with loved ones still in Vietnam (Lay & Nguyen, 1998; McBrien, 2005; H. H. Nguyen, Messe, & Stollak, 1999; Zhou & Bankston, 1998). Considerable attention must be given to factors that speak to a student’s broader life context and its effect on his or her ability to perform successfully and achieve in school. The formation of peer groups, through student organizations, has been found to increase student involvement and in effect increase self-esteem and reduce depression (McBrien, 2005). In the case of TN, Lai, and Arthur, the VSA served as a possible space in which support could be provided. Their feelings of loss and distress did not dissipate, but gave them direction and energized the student group’s political and educational schemes.


On January, 10, 1980, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Thai pirates killed 70 Vietnamese boat people and took the rest to a deserted jungle island to ‘rape and hunt at will’” (“Pirates Kill 70 Refugees”). Augmented by the experiences of its own members, in May 1980, Irvine’s VSA sent a letter to King Bhumibol Aduilyadei of Thailand petitioning for the safety and protection of the boat people (Petition to Stop Cruel Piracy on the Boat People, 1980). Thousands escaped Vietnam by hiring fishermen to hide them in their “dangerously overloaded” boats, where they risked their lives in the open sea while crammed underneath. Do Quang Trinh, a refugee and student at UCI, reported that “since they ran out of fresh water and could not cook on the boat, the refugees had to eat uncooked rice mixed with their own urine” (Trinh, 1987). Because of the urgent need to leave, families, mostly mothers and their children, did not have time to pack and brought only their prized possessions, such as jewelry, to barter their way to safety. Unable to come up for fresh air for fear of being seen and caught by the “Vietnamese coast guards,” and coupled with starvation, many became ill, with little idea of when they would arrive at their unknown destination. What was certain was that they needed to leave Vietnam, a country they no longer imagined to be in their immediate future. For those fortunate to escape, many boats had to contend with nature’s unpredictability and the lingering fear of Thai pirates roaming the sea.

The letter (Petition to Stop Cruel Piracy on the Boat People, 1980) described how throngs of people on the boats suffered “RPM, or Rape, Pillage and Murder,” where “girls (as young as ten)” and “elderly women” were not spared. “Husbands and children” were “forced to witness the humiliation of their wives and mothers, then shot and pushed into the sea. Many boats have been left to sink after being attacked, and the people left to drown.” Invigorated by their passion for justice, members of the VSA conjured the bravado to send a message to the King of Thailand. Despite efforts by the American government to have its war ships sail through the South China Sea to ward off potential pirate attacks, the VSA believed that a letter from the Vietnamese community would encourage swifter and more effective efforts to stop these attacks. The letter continued by extolling Thailand: “with her ancient culture and Buddhist tradition of kindness, [Thailand] would never condone such amoral, shameful, corrupt, barbaric inhumanities.” VSA ended the letter by begging the king to “investigate” these matters and “put an end” to “the misery of the helpless refugees.” Even though many believed that the king led the massacre, the VSA engaged politically and diplomatically by appealing to the king’s role as a protector rather than an aggressor. This particular source and engagement exemplifies students’ commitment to the refugees, who were successful escaping Vietnam but found themselves under equally dangerous conditions.

On April 28, 1985, the “union gathered outside the Royal Thai Consulate General, City hall of Los Angeles and the Bolsa Mini Mall [located in the heart of Little Saigon]” (Holly, 1985) to rally against the continued suffering of those still in Vietnam and those who escaped but risked the possibility of dying at sea. The Los Angeles Times reported that “a succession of speakers delivered nationalistic and anti-Communist speeches, and led the crowd in bitter chants in Vietnamese and English: ‘Down with Communism!’ and ‘Hanoi, Stop Killing our Brothers!’” The Union of Vietnamese Students Association promised that as students, they would “always stand up to support and do whatever they can in order to help the boat people” (Quan Diem Sinh Vien Va Nghia Vu Ti Nan, 1982). Their distinct sense of loss became their collective sense of purpose. The political conviction and action led some members of the UCI VSA and the UVSA to develop Project Ngoc, “a non-profit humanitarian organization . . . dedicated in helping the boat people’s cause” in 1987 (Project Ngoc, 1989).

Project Ngoc, “named after a young girl, a character in a short story based on”  the struggles that Vietnamese refugees endured on their escape, initially emerged from a course of the same name developed by UCI graduate student Tom Wilson (Hively, 1987, p. 14). Wilson, who had very close friends who were also affected by the war in similar ways, said, “I started realizing that some of the most important people in my life could have been victims of the pirates or sold into prostitution” (p. 14). “Designed to let student earn college credit while becoming political activists on behalf of Vietnamese refugees,” the course would allow students to make sense of their own experiences and provide the opportunity to satisfy their strong desires to give back. Cindy Ma, 21, “hopes to help others come to the United States, and she would like to offer moral support and advice to new arrivals” (p. 15). Unfortunately, the class never came to fruition despite the 90 students who tried to enroll. Initially penned as an “independent study” through the department of biology, where Wilson found faculty support, it was ultimately denied because it lacked a laboratory component.

The spirit of the course, however, lived on and evolved to form a student organization that operated to promote awareness of poor conditions at refugee camps, to encourage local activism, and to influence public policy relating to refugee protection and rights to pursue asylum and refusal of deportation. Project Ngoc’s  (1989) objectives included:

1) To monitor violations of human rights against Southeast Asian asylum seekers using guidelines set by international documents on refugee and human rights.

2) To ask for the fair treatment and the protection of asylum seekers while they are being kept in “detention centers” of first asylum countries.

3) To present the forced repatriation of the people who have suffered greatly and who have risked all that they have to obtain freedom.

4) To study and document all aspects of the current refugee exodus from Southeast Asia.

5) To increase public awareness of the continuing refugee crisis.

6) To seek sponsors in final asylum countries for the refugees.

7) To help improve the conditions in the camps by providing emotional, educational, and economic support.

8) To support the work of like-minded organizations which have expressed concern for the plight of the refugees (p. 1)

Project Ngoc stood as an organization that exclusively advocated for the rights of refugees above and beyond the boundaries of the UCI campus. According to former congressman Robert K. Dornan (1987),

For Americans, this human tragedy is a dark reminder of our Nation’s involvement in Vietnam. But for a small group of Vietnamese students at the University of California, Irvine, this tragedy has sparked a humanitarian crusade to alleviate the suffering of the boat people and bring their plight to the attention of the world.

Educating its own members became a significant strategy to invigorate and equip them with the means to be effective representatives and advocates for the broader cause. Indeed, Project Ngoc was no ordinary student organization in which support of a cause was limited to fundraising or designated days for volunteering. To be truly effective in achieving its objectives, Project Ngoc offered its members experiences that placed them at the helm of understanding the realities of living in a limbolike state and the conditions in which refugee policy was determined.

The organization mediated opportunities for students to travel to refugee camps that held up to 10,000 Vietnamese refugees in order to help improve the poor conditions and services. Working with the International Social Services, the first group of students, consisting of four members of Project Ngoc, spent the summer of 1988 teaching English and mathematics to children at a camp in Chimawan, an island off Hong Kong, and later at the “Collision Closed Camp, a newly opened camp with education programs to accommodate detainees” (Au, 1988). The work was very taxing, both physically and emotionally. These four students “began each day at 7:30 a.m. After three hours traveling by subway, bus and ferry, th[e]y arrive at the refugee camps by 10:30,” teaching until 6:00 p.m. and learning more about “government policy and treatment toward the refugees” (p. 2).  Classes were segregated by gender and included almost 80 children. After completing their teaching responsibilities for the day, the four students spent an enormous amount of time getting to know the residents of the camp. Duc Nguyen Au would “find [himself] crouching inside the dark, humid, urine stench cramped quarters listening to frustrations poured forth by the refugees” (p. 2).

Along with these immersions, the members of Project Ngoc “published a 35-page report that [took] a critical view of U.S. immigration policy and the U.S. role in Southeast Asia . . . entitled ‘The Forgotten People: Vietnamese Refugees in Hong’” (Reyes, 1988, p. 3). This report included statistics in varied and effective forms that captured the poor living conditions in these camps. According to 23-year-old Van Tran, Project Ngoc sent a copy of the report to every member of Congress. Eventually even the United Nations received a copy, which it was “anxious to read, said Patricia Fagen, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees” (Reyes, 1988, p. 3). Project Ngoc’s reach was both wide and influential.

These activities gave Project Ngoc a sense of legitimacy in the eyes of North American agencies and organizations committed to supporting Vietnamese refugees. For instance, My-Nga Le, a UCI student, attended the Canadian Private Sponsorship Program on behalf of Project Ngoc on March 26, 1989. This conference convened several organizations that had deep knowledge of and experience with the struggles of refugee transition from the camps to a sponsoring country in order to determine programming and best practices—language courses, health care, housing and career development—that would improve refugees’ ability to acclimate to Canada. On April 8 of the same year, Project Ngoc and others from the local government and business community in the Orange County area came together to form “a temporary Council for Refugee Rights” (Project Ngoc, 1989). The formation of this council was a response to the upcoming International Conference on Indochinese Refugees to be held in Geneva, Switzerland to ensure that “a fair and acceptable method for determining the refugees’ status and humane solutions regarding resettlement and repatriation”  (Project Ngoc, 1989) would be developed.

Fear regarding unsound repatriation abounded the Vietnamese community in Southern California. In Hong Kong, refugees could be identified as “economic” or “political” immigrants. If they were found to be the former, they were sent back, with little protection from the Vietnamese government. If countries and regions, such as Thailand and Hong Kong, were sending back Vietnamese refugees, there would be no guarantee that they would be protected from the Vietnamese government. Project Ngoc was adamant in inserting itself in spaces and arenas that concerned the well-being of its own people and believed that forming policies without the input of Vietnamese people was, according to student, Van Thai Tran, “hypocritical.”

Project Ngoc’s efforts were driven by the personal experiences and empathy of its members. Like many of the members of VSA, Project Ngoc consisted of many students who were refugees themselves and could recall similar struggles of uncertainty and fear of political persecution. Cofounder of Project Ngoc, Trinh Do, lived in a Malaysian camp for 7 months before receiving asylum in the United States. Before his arrival at the camp, Do’s mother gave him the entire family’s savings and instructed him to escape Vietnam in the hopes of living a life free from the political forces that ravaged their country. According to Do, Project Ngoc represented an opportunity to repay his family and others who stayed behind to ensure that he and his generation had a greater chance of survival. In other words, Project Ngoc stood as an opportunity for the Vietnamese people to act and care for their own.  

As mentioned earlier, common narratives consistently construct Vietnamese refugees as primarily victims of war who are easily influenced, pushed and pulled by the political decisions of first-world countries. The purpose of documenting the stories set forth in this article on Vietnamese students at UCI is, yes, to push back on dominant narratives that define these people as agentless, but also to remind us of the power and commitment that students have to come together to achieve goals bigger than themselves. Driven by their past struggles and the struggles of their families and close friends, their own countrymen, the passion emanated and the action employed by students of VSA and Project Ngoc represent critical histories that showcase the textured nature of our students and encourage us to move away from commonly and poorly held perceptions of students by race, class, gender, or any other social characteristic. With this contribution, a story that tends to elude the cannon of education and history, we provide a context in which to understand the successes and challenges, rooted in the past and carried forward to the present, of Vietnamese students.    


For an entire decade, University of California at Irvine’s Vietnamese students and affiliate organizations remained constant in their support for the refugees, which they demonstrated through political and educational means. These students over the years came together because their sense of loss was what bounded them together and linked them to their struggling brothers and sisters in Vietnam or those lost at sea. According to the Project Ngoc newsletter, “It is through fellowship with others that we find ourselves.” By committing their time to the causes that plagued the Vietnamese community, the space and time within the VSA became a fixed reminder of who they were and where they came from. Despite the images that dominate our perceptions of immigrants of war, these students’ narratives counter the passivity that Vietnamese people are known for within the literature. Surely as time passed and the social and economic terrain became more familiar, Vietnamese immigrants were able to improve their lives significantly. But the process that led to these improvements is simply undocumented. By understanding the experiences of these students, we gain insight into how they developed their ethnic identity within the broader context of postwar outcomes.

As mentioned, this historical account of student activism within the Vietnamese community pushes back against popular historical narratives that either ignore or blur the distinct experiences, traditions, and political and economic statuses among the U.S. Asian population. Our narrative showcases how Vietnamese students were active in their pursuit to improve the social and political conditions for their community and for those en route via refugee camps. But also important, this narrative brings forward very critical issues of student organizing and civic engagement and immigration—themes that have become the core of many national debates related to college access and the purpose of colleges and universities.

We encourage practitioners at all levels of education to consider the value in student clubs and organizations and the positive influence they have to support students’ development and improve student engagement with the broader campus community. This history confirms the position of research (Guiffrida, 2003; Harper & Quaye, 2006; Museus, 2008) on the benefits that student accrue from participating in ethnic-specific student organizations, including the opportunities to find and build solidarity and celebrate cultural traditions. Despite immediate inclinations to reduce student funding during extreme times of austerity, the presented narrative demonstrates how the benefits to students are limitless. Affinity groups galvanize student participation; they also offer opportunities from them to engage locally, globally, and politically, bringing the process of their education full circle. Put simply, our narrative shows how student organizations and their activities and goals are not limited to the campus, but can be actionable outlets to create local change that speaks to our institutions’ civic duty to improve our communities. We understand that not every club or association may mirror such commitment to civic engagement, but with the proper support, they can be instrumental to students’ educational experiences. To this day, the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California continues to thrive and provide social services to Vietnamese communities (UVSA, 2012).

The motives that shaped these students’ direction and goals stem from the political and social outcomes of a war. The gravity of this event, and the displacement of an entire nation, underscores the experience—separation, loss, adjustment, and focus—of many immigrant students in this country. Students at UC Irvine were fortunate to find such community and solidarity in the Vietnamese Student Association. But this story also begs us to question the experiences of immigrant students, especially those undocumented, in postsecondary education. As more institutions employ more flexible enrollment policies for undocumented students, how do institutions acknowledge these students’ experiences—life circumstances—in their services and practices (Perez, 2012)?

These narratives can equip educational researchers and practitioners in framing their inquiries and findings within a more texturized understanding of student populations. Furthermore, these narratives pierce our heavily guarded understanding of race and homogenization and propel us to consider the nuances of racial identity in educational research.  All too often, we lump ethnic groups together, neglecting to understand the vast cultural differences among them and the complexity of their identity development based on these cultural differences (Chang et. al, 2007). A reconceptualization of educational research on Asian Americans requires that scholars and policy makers think critically about how populations and their needs are defined, and find ways to transcend the reductionism of homogenization and address the varied demographics within this community. History serves as a single but important method to illuminate and understand how the relationship between ethnic groups and the United States influences the choices, possibilities, and life trajectories for our postsecondary students. The Vietnam War certainly caused a mass migration of Vietnamese citizens to the United States, where many believed that opportunities for social mobility would be plentiful and accessible. Although progress has been made, the scars left from this displacement—poverty and disparities in educational achievement and health outcomes (Ghosh, 2003; Teranishi, 2010; Zhou & Bankston III, 1998)—continue to plague Vietnamese communities and their students. Teranishi  (2010) stated that

the mean score for all the AAPIs [Asian American and Pacific Islanders] when it comes to grades, test scores, or college-going rates cannot reflect the wide distribution of subgroups from the mean. Thus, while AAPIs are similar to many groups, there are also ways that they are quite unique and misplaced with the categorical model of race. (p. 147)

The uniqueness of each subgroup and their distinct challenges in educational attainment and persistence are largely determined by their unique histories in America. One way to reconceptualize and advance educational research on Asian American students is to first understand their larger histories and point of origin in this country.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 5, 2015, p. 1-22
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17891, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 4:48:48 PM

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About the Author
  • Thai-Huy Nguyen
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    THAI-HUY NGUYEN is a Ph.D. candidate in the Division of Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania and a research assistant at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His interests lie in the role of MSIs in improving educational and professional outcomes for racial minority and low-SES students. His work has been published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education and Nursing Outlook.
  • Marybeth Gasman
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    MARYBETH GASMAN is professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as the director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Dr. Gasman is the author of many books, including Educating a Diverse Nation: Lessons from Minority Serving Institutions.
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