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Spring 2020

On Henry Mall

'Vỹ Lương', a freshman biochemistry major, photographed at UW–Madison's College Library with the book Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from Madison and Milwaukee High Schools, which contains his story. Photo by Michael P. King
'Vỹ Lương', a freshman biochemistry major, photographed at UW–Madison's College Library with the book Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from Madison and Milwaukee High Schools, which contains his story. Photo by Michael P. King

‘Vỹ Lương’’s journey to Wisconsin from Tiền Giang province in Vietnam began with a major detour. It was the first of many challenges he faced as an immigrant. But today, many years and obstacles later, the way is clear for this CALS freshman.

Lương’ spent much of his youth in Châu Thành district, a poor, rural area south of Hồ Chí Minh City where he shared a ramshackle house with his mother, younger brother, grandmother, and a few cousins. His mother earned the family’s only source of income. They lived on a daily diet of rice and potatoes and didn’t even have the luxury of an indoor toilet.

In 2012, when Lương’ was in sixth grade, his mother decided it was time to pursue a better life for her children. She also wanted to reunite with her father, an American soldier who served in the Vietnam War and afterward settled in Madison, Wisconsin. Lương’, 12 years old at the time, only truly understood what he would be leaving behind when the journey began in earnest.

“I realized that I would have to rebuild my reputation and rebuild a community and learn how to adapt, learn the language, and really start over and kind of make my own path to be successful,” says Lương’. “That was really hard.”

Then the Lương’s’ flight to Los Angeles was forced to make an emergency landing in Alaska. With anxiety riding high and the language barrier ratcheting up the tension, it was an inauspicious start to their voyage. And the language barrier continued to stand in the way for Lương’ when he and his mother, grandmother, and brother arrived at their new home in Madison.

“From middle school to the first two years of high school, it was pretty tough,” says Lương’. “The process was long and tiring for me.”

Bullies targeted him for the way he spoke and presented himself. He found it difficult to learn. Lương’ began sitting in the back of his classes to observe and hear as much as he could. He soon gained a steady command of English, which he credits to constant immersion in the language. From there, his prospects quickly climbed.

In his junior year of high school, a personal essay by Lương’ was published in a book titled Green Card Youth Voices: Immigrant Stories from Madison and Milwaukee High Schools. The next year, before graduating with high honors, he was accepted at UW–Madison, where he’s majoring in biochemistry. Lương’ plans to become a family physician. He says he was inspired by his family’s first American doctor, Rebecca Tharaud.

At the time a physician with Access Community Health Centers, Tharaud assisted the Lương’s with vital practical matters, from enrolling in a health insurance program to navigating the school system. She has since moved to a new practice in Massachusetts, but she remembers the Lương’ family well — especially how, in the space of eight months, Lương’ went from speaking almost no English to holding easy conversations with her.

“It was really amazing how quickly Vỹ adapted to a new environment, and I know he must have worked very hard to learn English as quickly as he did,” says Tharaud. “I am thrilled to hear he is interested in becoming a family doctor, and I understand why. Vỹ is a hardworking and intelligent young man with a generous spirit and a love of family.”

Lương’ hopes to draw on this spirit in his future career. “I want to not only provide medical care; I want to connect with families,” Lương’ says. “[Dr. Tharaud] got us connected with the people that we needed. I want to be able to do that for other families in the future.”

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