From attempting to escape communism 11 times to becoming the president of the Vietnamese American Community in the U.S., adjunct professor Trong Phan has endured hardship; yet, he has prevailed in giving back to the Vietnamese community.
Phan, who teaches Vietnamese at UTD, was born in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, where North Vietnamese communists confiscated his family’s property and violated their human rights. Phan credited his mother for instilling beliefs of freedom, which encouraged him to learn English and attempt to escape the country.
“During that journey of several attempts to escape Vietnam, I was caught during the escapement twice, and I was in prison twice, and I got shot at once,” Phan said. “I made it to Singapore when I was 19 years old. My boat was saved by the U.S. Air Force. If they didn’t find us that very night, we would have been swallowed by the storm that was brewing in the area. They spotted us on the sea and dispatched a Japanese ship to pick us up and bring us to Singapore.”
Residing in a multi-ethnic country has helped Phan assimilate among other cultures and improve his English. Phan later moved to the U.S. after being sponsored by his brother at UT Austin via a private sponsorship program.
“After so many years of interruption I went back to college,” Phan said. “I went to community college and eventually graduated from UT Austin, became an engineer, and guess who I’m working for. After a couple years working as an intern for a different electronic company, I decided to work for the U.S. Air Force, so I spent 33 years with the U.S. Air Force.”
While Phan has been interested in literature since his early days, he said that the language barrier led him to pursue electrical engineering instead. He later went back to literature and teaching in an attempt to give back to the Vietnamese American community and share his experiences.
“I love reading, and I love writing, so when I got here, I felt like people like us have to voice what we’ve been through, so I became a staff writer for a small newspaper in Austin, Texas,” Phan said. “About 10 years later, when I went to work for the U.S. Air Force on a weekend, I and a group of five to six people decided to start our own monthly magazine called U.S. Viet News. I became a chief editor for that magazine for five years. It ran in Austin for almost 10 years, but the paper base was not popular anymore, so we stopped, but I continued to write. I am currently writing for a number of online newspapers. ”
Along with writing about corruption and sovereignty in newspapers, Phan also hosted radio shows, namely the Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, as a means to connect with the Vietnamese population in San Antonio. Phan proclaims himself a civil activist and is heavily involved with the Vietnamese American community, especially in Texas.
“I am the president of the Vietnamese American Community in the USA, and I have been in that leadership role for many years, and I am always active in voter registration, encouraging Vietnamese Americans to vote,” Phan said. “I’m seriously involved with the advancement of freedom of religion for the Vietnamese. We help write a lot of violation reports for the United Nations, for the U.S. Committee on International Religious Foundation.”
Phan, who works at Dallas College as a career coach, is currently teaching VIET 2310, Vietnamese for Heritage Speakers, at UTD for the first time in his career. Phan added that the class is being offered again after over 20 years.
“Dr. Hatfield said he got a lot of interest from Vietnamese American students who don’t speak Vietnamese at home but want to learn Vietnamese,” Phan said. “He asked me if I wanted to teach that class, and I said ‘Oh my God, I’d love that,’ so he and I talked, and we built a curriculum for the class. Hopefully in the future we can grow Vietnamese into a permanent program that we can provide to UTD students, particularly Vietnamese Americans, but also to whoever wants to learn Vietnamese.”
Phan is currently involved in a project to resettle 1,000 Vietnamese refugees as part of a sponsorship starting in June. He said that he tried to raise awareness within the Vietnamese American community to help them to form sponsorship groups as well.
“I greatly appreciate this country,” Phan said. “It gave us a free space to really grow and to become a good person. As American citizens, we are also responsible for bettering our living environment, so I’m involved in a lot of projects to make sure we continue to give this gift of freedom. And hopefully this gift continues to give to a new generation of Americans that come to this country.”