He gasps for air. Struggling to stay afloat as water fills his lungs, he continues to swim toward the small island with scraps of wood from his broken boat surrounding him. As he finally reaches land, he sighs a breath of relief knowing that he had survived another day.
Math teacher Hoang Nong was born in Vietnam, and by his early adolescence, he evacuated due to the harsh living conditions. Wanting Nong to have a promising future, his parents urged him to leave with relatives for better opportunities in the U.S.
“I left with my aunt’s family because it was costly to go,” Nong said. “It was difficult to leave my parents because I was young, and there were times where I wished they were there to help me emotionally.”
Nong finished his paperwork for U.S. citizenship in 1988. Although he struggled to form complete English sentences, he excelled in his classes, graduating in the top 20 of his high school class and attended California Polytechnic State University, Pomona (CPP).
“My family background motivated me to do well in school,” Nong said. “My parents valued education because it was the only way for a better future, and they stressed the importance of education.”
Initially, Nong entered CPP as an engineering major but switched his major to math after a recession. After seven years of balancing school and odd jobs, he earned his Bachelor’s degree in math and decided to become a teacher.
“I really enjoy helping, teaching, shaping my students’ thoughts, and motivating them to be better people,” Nong said. “I want them to learn and to take advantage of the opportunities available. I welcome everyone with open arms, and I want them to leave learning as much as they can.”
Reflecting on his journey to the U.S., Nong realizes his constant positive attitude allowed him to survive in the face of adversity. Nong continues to put on a smile, especially for his children and students, and encourages them to never give up.
“I think I was always positive because my philosophy when I was younger was to not let the past haunt you,” Nong said. “I look at life as a walk through a forest, and you don’t get angry at the thorns that scratch you. Instead, you slowly detach the thorns and try to find your way out of the forest.”