University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

Our Only Favorite Daughter

A father reflects on fleeing Vietnam, and how his beloved daughter followed in his footsteps at the U of M.

Photo courtesty Nhat Dang

My family left Vietnam four days before the Fall of Saigon, in the spring of 1975. I was a senior at the University of Saigon, majoring in education. As we fled, I had to leave everything behind except for two duffel bags and $4, which I exchanged at Tân Sơn Nhât airport. After spending my first two years in the U.S. in Utah and California, I made my way to Minneapolis and started working as a bilingual aide at the  Minneapolis Public Schools. Thanks to a federal grant to fund bilingual education, I was able to attend the U of M in the evenings to obtain my teaching credential.

During that time, I got married. My wife, Lệ Nga, and I were introduced by our sisters. During Nga’s first pregnancy, we were curious about the sex of the baby, but the doctor told us she wasn’t sure. (We guessed she actually knew but dared not tell us because she presumed Asian parents would prefer boys over girls.) Later, each time Lệ Nga was pregnant with our sons, the doctor announced the big news right away. “Congratulations!” she said, pointing at the ultrasound. “Look at his testicles!”

Growing up, our firstborn and only daughter Tâm was the leader of the pack in our family but she remained shy and timid with adults. That changed in the summer of 2002, when I had the opportunity to teach English in Xian, China, and brought my family with me.

I was assigned to teach one class and my wife also had a class. However, my wife wanted Tâm to test drive a real career so she asked her, at only 15, to be in charge. Tâm turned out to be a gifted teacher, who encouraged her Chinese students with engaging dialogues and fun songs.

Still, we were a bit surprised when she told us she also wanted to become an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher—we had thought she would pursue a science-related career. But, the experience Tâm had in China, combined with visits to my classroom on Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day, paid off. She enrolled at the College of Education and Human Development at the U of M, where I received my own degree, and eventually earned her M.Ed degree, as well. She has taught ESL for 10 years now.

Two years ago, Tâm stepped into the limousine with Tony, her new husband.  As they left the church on their way to the reception, I remembered the day I first held her in my arms and taught her her first Vietnamese words. Now she is all grown up, ready to fly, side by side with her soulmate for life.

And for both of us, the U of M helped us find our way and follow our dreams.

Nhat Dang (B.S. ’87, M.Ed. ’93) is a retired educator who taught Bilingual/ESL at Minneapolis Public Schools and Vietnamese Heritage Language at the U of M. He enjoys painting, writing, and traveling with his wife during his retirement.