Grateful to mentors, nurse seeks to serve
Phan relies on father’s advice:
‘Education is the key to survival’
|Lan-Anh Thi Phan
By Dan Heuchert
In 1995, Lan-Anh Thi Phan and her family left DaNang, Vietnam, their home for all of her nearly 13 years, and boarded an airplane.
Twenty hours later, she looked out the window and there was New York City at night: impossibly huge buildings — more lights than she had ever seen — and crowds still bustling about. After another short flight, she arrived in Washington, where cold, white flakes fell from the clouds — her first experience of snow.
“That was the most freezing cold I have ever been,” she said. In tropical Vietnam, she always wore sandals and summer clothing.
On May 22, Anh, now 22, will walk down Thomas Jefferson’s hallowed Lawn and graduate from the University of Virginia with a degree in nursing. She will carry upon her slender shoulders the hope of her family and an entire refugee community, having overcome a language barrier, the tragic death of her father three years ago and an illness of her own, brought on in part by a sometimes-crushing sense of responsibility.
Throughout her journey, the words of her father have echoed in her mind: Education is the key to survival, no matter who you are in this civilized nation.
“Her strengths are her ability to overcome adversity, to always look for opportunity and not be discouraged,” said her adviser, nursing professor Emily Drake. “She will not be discouraged.”
Anh credits a series of people with guiding her transition from a wide-eyed immigrant to a self-assured college graduate. “I have had so many people care for me,” she said. “There was always somebody supporting me.”
The first was her father, Hoanh Huu Phan. A lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army, he had a chance to escape the fall of Saigon in 1975, but turned back to stay with his wife. His loyalty cost him eight years in a re-education camp; he and his family then spent 10 years awaiting papers to allow them to leave for the United States.
Anh remembers her father carrying her the three miles to her Vietnamese school on his bicycle, and listening to his voice as he read to his children at night. “I grew up really close to my father,” she said.
It was he who urged her to follow her passion into nursing, though her mother suggested she try business instead. “If you do what you like, money will come to you,” he told her.
Hoanh Huu Phan died tragically in an automobile accident in Washington during Anh’s second year at U.Va. Anh was torn between continuing her studies and the obligation she felt to help her mother, who works in a small Washington hotel, and younger brother, who’s in high school. Her father was the family’s guide in the United States. With him gone, Anh took on more responsibility, even teaching her mother how to write checks. Anh returns home to attend her younger brother’s parent-teacher conferences and other significant events, or arranges for others to go in her place. She will help guide him through the college application process.
“I have always been the second mother to my younger brother, Minh,” she said. “But suddenly I became the father and the emotional support for my mom, and the personal representative for the family, while I went through coping myself.”
In addition to her father, Anh said she is grateful to Sandy Dang, the founder and executive director of Asian American Leadership Empowerment and Development for Youth and Family, a Washington group that helps Vietnamese immigrants make the transition to American society. Dang took Anh under her wing shortly after she arrived in the United States.
AALEAD provides students with after-school and summer enrichment programs, Saturday tutoring sessions, a mentoring program and a high school academic and leadership program, from which Anh graduated. There also is a family support program.
Anh became a member of AALEAD’s Youth Board and founded its Youth Power Group. She represented the organization at a White House conference on teenagers, meeting with then-Labor Secretary Alexis Herman.
Anh has maintained contact with AALEAD, returning during summers to teach younger children. She proudly notes that one of her former students recently was accepted to Smith College, and another was named one of 50 eighth-grade Jack Kent Cooke Scholars nationwide.
“The staff members have been like my friends and relatives; AALEAD is my second family,” she said. “I have learned and benefited from its programs, and I feel obligated to give back in any possible way that I can.”
Dang speaks of Anh in glowing terms. “She’s extremely bright. She’s resilient, has a positive outlook on life and is so determined. She has a great sense of responsibility, and she cares so much.
“We see the potential in her, and the kind of impact she can have on the world.”
Anh credits Dang and another mentor, Dawn McKeever, who she met at her local library, for helping her make the transition to American society. She essentially learned English in eighth grade — and well enough that she was Wilson High’s English Student of the Year as a freshman.
“I remember going to school with a 5-pound, English-Vietnamese dictionary that I carried every day for more than a year,” she said. Assignments that took her classmates an hour or two to complete would take her three times as long.
“I was so proud of myself when I read and understood the whole book ‘The Ugly Duckling’ by myself without looking in the dictionary,” she said. “I remember my first writing report, about Thanksgiving. I checked out every single book that was available in the library about Thanksgiving. It took my classmates one class period to finish that project. I spent three nights, and I finished the project beyond the requirement.”
Though her classmates sometimes teased her about her English, she ignored them and pushed on — winning a science fair, captaining the cross-country team, being elected president of the Asian-American Student Association and coordinator of the National Honor Society. She finished among the top 10 of her graduating class and was one of four Wilson graduates admitted to U.Va.
Her determination had a dark side. Isolated from her support system at U.Va., but reluctant to seek help, she struggled in her first months. She grew fatigued, which she found alarming. “I’ve always had an active life. I never got tired,” she said. The exhaustion “prevented me from getting up in the morning and going to class.”
She eventually sought help and was diagnosed with a stress-related heart condition, which she was able to control with medication and a lifestyle change.
“I learned to take care of myself,” she said. “I needed to stop worrying so much about other people. I grew up in a family that worries about other people before themselves.”
Anh also found new mentors within the School of Nursing. She grew close to associate dean Doris Greiner, and still carries a seashell Greiner gave her from a supply she keeps in her office to offer to troubled students.
“Often it occurs to me to give them a seashell as a reminder of calming energy,” Greiner explained, “as though they would be at the sea for a few minutes and experience how restorative that can be, simply by holding the shell.”
Anh skipped the first semester of her second year, then returned for the spring term — just before her father died.
Anh opted to stay at U.Va., and has been active in both the Asian Student Union and the Vietnamese Student Association. She also has taught Vietnamese and served as a translator at PTO meetings, health clinics and emergency rooms in both Charlottesville and Washington.
“It is really amazing how she went from struggling to really thriving,” said Drake, her adviser. “She is a very caring, wonderful young woman who will become a great nurse.”
Unsurprisingly, Anh intends to return to D.C. after graduation to work in her mother and brother’s community. Last summer, she and three friends organized and raised funds for their own summer program for disadvantaged elementary school students from many ethnic backgrounds, based in a local elementary school. Anh was the program coordinator, leading educational and recreational activities and field trips.
Now they want to put together a new program, perhaps in conjunction with AALEAD, to include both educational and health promotion segments.
Some see her as the ideal teacher, but Anh said she is committed to nursing.
“In the nursing field, I play the role of not just a care provider, but also as an educator and a counselor, because I get to interact with a diverse group of patients,” she said.
Clearly, she appreciates the value of a good mentor.
“Somehow, you make a difference in someone’s life,” she said. That’s what she hopes to do, one person at a time.