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Former Vietnam refugee pursues American education and dream

BOONE—“Knowledge is one thing no one can ever take away from you.”

Those are the words of Brian Pham, a senior actuarial science and finance double major at Appalachian State University who once lived in refugee camps.

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He received the 2013 North Carolina Community College System’s Dallas Herring Award in May, presented to a current or former community college student who best embodies Herring’s philosophy of “taking people where they are and carrying them as far as they can go.” He transferred to Appalachian after graduating from Mayland Community College in December. His journey has indeed taken him far.

Born in what was then called Saigon, Pham and his father fled the country at the end of the Vietnam War. They were among nearly 1.6 million “boat people” who braved the South China Sea seeking refuge in Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Pham was just 12 when his father woke him from his sleep to walk three days through the jungle to a small rice boat where Pham and others hid as it sailed for Malaysia. Pham’s mother and sister stayed in Vietnam while he and his father, who had been an officer in the Vietnamese People’s Army, spent the next seven years living in U.N.-sponsored refugee camps.

After temporarily returning to Vietnam for two years, Pham’s entire family was granted asylum in the United States through the Resettlement Opportunities for Vietnamese Returnees program.

Atlanta became their new home. “It was quite interesting. I remember those days, speaking little English,” said Pham, who by that time was 21 years old. He later developed conversational English language skills through his work as a nail technician. His customers gave him books to read and he watched TV to be more involved in the language.

While his father later returned to Vietnam to be with his brothers and sisters, Pham stayed in Atlanta and helped put his sister through college at Georgia Tech.

While in Atlanta, Pham reconnected with a woman who lived in the same refugee camp with him in Malaysia when they were children. They married and “during that time we made a commitment that we would see the country,” Pham said. “We have been all over the United States. Somehow we ended up in North Carolina.”

Pham and his family settled in Spruce Pine after purchasing a small nail salon there, which they continue to operate.

After his children, now ages 4 and 2, were born, Pham decided he wanted to go back to school, in part to better provide for his family. And as he said, “It was my turn,” to earn an education.

He enrolled at nearby Mayland Community College, where he fell in love with math, excelling in calculus, trigonometry and statistics and maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade point average.

After graduating from the community college, Pham visited three college campuses, “but Appalachian was the only place that felt like home,” he said. “I walked on campus and talked to the people and I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

Appalachian also was the only campus that he applied to attend. “I love it,” he said after three semesters at the university. “I like it here because of the laid-back atmosphere. It’s a good place to study.”

Going to community college and Appalachian has enabled Pham to further strengthen his English language skills.

He credits being able to balance being a student, father and husband to his wife and mother-in-law who managed child care duties until Pham’s son and daughter were old enough to attend day care.

Once they are fed and go to sleep, Pham has time to study. “It’s very challenging,” he said of being a full-time student and business owner. “Family is a big, big factor in my success.”

But the sacrifice is small compared to the journey that brought him from Vietnam to Atlanta and North Carolina.

“Of course we all know people get education for several purposes – to get a job, to get a raise. But to me the true purpose for being educated is about knowledge. Knowledge is something no one can take away from you,” he said. “Through all this chaos in the past few years with the economy, I still believe that the U.S. is still a land of opportunity. That can be proven time after time.”

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