Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support employees celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month during a virtual presentation July 29.
Keynote speaker Sandy Hoa Dang, a social entrepreneur, experienced executive, leadership trainer, and management consultant, shared experiences from her life to give the audience a small glimpse into a large and rich Asian American Pacific Islander story.
One of her earliest memories was of her and her family hiding in a bomb shelter underneath her house, in Hanoi, Vietnam, during U.S. airstrikes at the height of the Vietnam War.
“At that time we called it the American War,” she said. “I remember the U.S. had a massive airstrike that lasted for 12 days. I was four years old. Every time we heard the sirens we would have to run down to the bomb shelter. I remember grabbing my mom by her legs and holding tightly as the bombs exploded. The house was shaking like a loose tooth.”
Once the bombing stopped, Dang said, she heard the nearby hospital had been destroyed and 3,000 civilians died. If the bombing had moved just a little bit toward her family’s home, she said, it would’ve been destroyed.
After the Vietnam War ended, Dang thought her family would be able to live in peace. But when the Sino-Vietnamese War began in China, her family, of Chinese descent, was forced to move to a sugarcane plantation in China.
“There was a policy to push out all of the ethnic Chinese people,” Dang said. “Even though my family had lived in Vietnam for four generations, we were forced out. We left with nothing. The thing that was very devastating for my family was that there were no schools. My parents would look at me and my siblings and wonder what our future would be. So they did a very brave thing.”
Dang’s family escaped the plantation in the middle of the night on a fishing boat and ended up in a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Over the next three years, they lived in six refugee camps.
“I remember dreaming that one day I would come to the United States and I would be able to go to school again,” she said. “I would have a place that I could call home again.”
In October of 1981, the Dang family moved to the United States.
“We moved to Salt Lake City two days before Halloween,” Dang said. “It was the first time I saw snow. I was so excited. And I remember on Halloween night, the kids got dressed up in scary costumes and went door to door to beg for candy and I thought, ‘This is a very strange country.’”
Dang, who spoke no English at that time, was enrolled into the seventh grade at West Lake Jr. High School in Salt Lake City.
“On my first day of school, at lunch time, I stood outside the lunchroom looking through the glass door at the other children laughing and eating together,” she said. “I stood outside crying because I didn’t know how to ask for a lunch ticket. For that whole first week in school, all I could do was put my head down on my desk and cry because I didn’t understand a word the teacher was saying.”
Thinking about the dreams she had and the sacrifices her parents made to come to the U.S., Dang vowed to learn English so she could get her education. Every night she studied a large Vietnamese-to-English dictionary to do her homework, which at times would take up to five hours.
“A year later, with the help of teachers and friends who sat with me during lunch and taught me how to write a proper sentence, I was able to become a straight ‘A’ student,” she said.
Her family moved to New York City to be near a larger Asian American community, and after five more years of school, Dang received a scholarship to attend Duke University in North Carolina.
After graduating with a social work degree, she began to look for ways to help other immigrant teenagers who were going through the same struggles she experienced.
“An opportunity came for me to work in the Vietnamese American community in Washington D.C.,” she said. “At that time a lot of refugees were coming from Vietnam. I started working in the community and building an organization that provided after-school programs, mentoring, leadership training and family support services to help our young people to get an education and move out of poverty.”
In 2007, after 13 years of growing her non-profit organization, Asian American Leadership, Empowerment, and Development (AALEAD), Dang passed the reins onto other members in the community and went to Harvard’s Kennedy School on a Fellowship to get her Master’s degree in Public Administration.
After graduation, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the Board of the Vietnam Education Foundation, an independent government agency with a mission to strengthen the bilateral relations between United States and Vietnam through education exchange.
“I was so honored when I received the appointment from President Obama, because who would have imagined a little girl who stood in a bomb shelter at four years old would one day grow up to become a presidential appointee and work on reconciliation efforts between the two countries,” she said. “I was able to use my Vietnamese language and culture to build bridges and strengthen the bilateral relations between the two countries.”
After two years Dang became the executive director of the agency.
Dang said her heritage, experiences, as well as, help from friends and teachers all contributed to her success and enabled her to contribute to her community and the United States.
Robert Ratner, DLA Troop Support Chief of Staff said Dang’s story and contributions are reflective of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community as a whole.
“Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have a rich heritage thousands of years old,” he said. “They have both shaped the history of the United States and had their lives dramatically influenced by moments in its history.”
The event, originally scheduled for May, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.