Dreams from Vietnam

If you could encapsulate your life story in six words, what would they be?  Mine are School Dropout, War Refugee, and Ivy Leaguer.

As a child growing up in the shadow of the Vietnam War, I failed the first grade twice and was incredibly afraid of going to school. One of my most horrific childhood memories occurred on March 1974 when an 82mm mortar fell on Cai Lay Elementary School killing 32 students and wounding 43. I will never forget the images of dead students and the tribute song played on television. I did not feel safe going to school. I was terrified that this could happen to my school and to me. Another fearful memory occurred the last day of the Vietnam War on April 30, 1975. I remember that day vividly as five soldiers were burned to death in front of my house. The sound of soldier’s screaming and the smell of human flesh burning haunted me for years. Many years later those memories still come back to haunt me; over and over again. The last days of the Vietnam War were also my last days of school. After the war, the communists used schools for propaganda and children as spies on their families and parents. So my dad decided to pull me out of 4th grade and I did not go back to school until seven years later after I had escaped from Vietnam.

After winning the war, the communists put hundreds of thousands of people into labor camps.  Over 1 million families were forced to leave their homes and relocate to unoccupied jungles to develop new economic zones. Farmers were forced to hand over their land, harvests, and livestock. The agricultural production fell alarmingly, and the food supplies decreased to a point of famine. These persecutions caused over 1 million Vietnamese took to create makeshift boats in an effort to flee from the communists in search of freedom. This group became known as the “boat people,” and I was one of them.

After escaping out of Vietnam in 1980, I was able to resettle in Dallas, Texas a year later. Immediately after arriving in the United States, I encountered many challenges such as cultural differences, language barriers, and prejudices. I felt humiliated when people could not understand me, or when kids made fun of my accent and appearance. I felt insulted when people asked me to repeat what I had said. The inability to express myself impinged upon my social and academic life. Considering my previous struggles in school and the lapse of seven years as a school dropout, going back to high school without English and other basic skills was extremely difficult.

Random Illustrations, Unedited Work in Progress

One day in high school, I saw a picture of Wentworth, Dartmouth, and Thornton Halls at Dartmouth College. In this picture there stood three white old buildings with green roofs in front of a large green grass-covered field. It was love at first sight. However, what grabbed my attention most was Dartmouth’s motto: Vox Clamantis in Deserto. This is one of my favorite biblical references in which John the Baptist replied to the priests with the words from the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’” (John 1:22-23). Dartmouth is one of the nine colonial colleges established before the American War for Independence and it is a member of the Ivy League. I could not help but dream of being there one day. However, with a GPA at low B and a poor SAT score, it took me seven years after high school to achieve this dream. What are your dreams? How long will you persevere to reach your dreams?

In 1988, both my parents passed away in Vietnam on the same day just of couple hours apart. My mom was ill and died from complications with diabetes. After the war, South Vietnam became controlled by the Communist’s centrally planned economy. There were severe shortages of food, drugs, and medical supplies. My dad was a nurse practitioner but did know that my mom had diabetes. After my mom passed away, a few hours later, my dad did not want to live without her and took his own life. One of my parents’ dreams was to have one of their 14 children become a doctor. They did not live long enough to see me graduate from college. This was a major setback because I lost two of the most significant people in my life. At Dartmouth College, I established the Tu Luong Medical Mission Foundation (TLF) in honor of my mother and father Tu and Luong respectively. Tu Luong means ‘from the heart’ in Vietnamese and “help, relief, assistance, aid, and support” in Tagalog (tulong/tulugan). TLF’s first purpose was to organize medical teams to provide free medical services to Vietnamese refugees in Southeast Asia. When the last Vietnamese refugee camp closed, TLF reincorporated in Washington State in 1998 to support medical missions, education, and other nonprofit organizations.

Other Friends’ Random Illustrations, Unedited

After graduating from Dartmouth College, I went back to my alma mater to teach Science. My goal was to teach for three to five years and then return to medical school. That was 24 years ago. It was then that I altered my trajectory from becoming a Physician to becoming a Teacher. As a former refugee, a school dropout, and an English language learner, my teachers went the extra mile to help me. I believe that becoming a teacher is one of the best ways to honor these teachers from times past. I chose a path “less traveled” by most Vietnamese.

As my teaching career winds down, I have begun to think about what legacy I will leave behind when my life has passed. School Dropout, War Refugee, Ivy Leaguer; these 3 phrases also form the titles for three chapters of my graphic novel and memoir. I would be honored if you would join me for my final chapter of Dreams from Vietnam.

What is my final dream? In 2018, the Washington State Board of Education approved the Tu Luong Medical Mission Foundation to establish the Seattle Mini Medical School (SMMS), which provides full curriculum for grades 6-12. SMMS will be a blended learning college preparatory school that focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine, and Medical Mission. SMMS is designed for students who are serious about pursuing a career in medicine. SMMS provides a way to expose high school students to the basic science of medicine and clinical skills early on in their education. Our medical mission will provide students with clinical experiences that instill compassion and help students understand the true meaning of medicine and service. My final chapter of Dreams from Vietnam is to guide, encourage, and educate the future physicians, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to have compassion for the poor and needy both locally and globally.

So that by joining me we can accomplish my final dream: to live out new chapters of this journey and create a never-ending story in which you are the new author.


Email is the preferred method for initial contact.  I am a teacher.  I turn off my phone during school hours. Thank you for your understanding and consideration.

Tan M. Lam
tlam@tlfoundation.org or tanlam@minimedicalschool.org