May 25, 2016

Vina Vo: An unexpected champion

Anh Nguyen raised her granddaughter, Vina Vo, to be a champion. Whether she knows it or not, Nguyen passed on to Vo her dogged determination and her unwavering capacity to nurture those around her. The matriarch of her family, a family torn apart by the carnage of the Vietnam War, Nguyen fearlessly dodged bombs during her weekly sojourns to the market to sell fabric, just to make ends meet. She single-handedly raised her youngest siblings and her own five children for 10 years in the province of Vinh Long along the Mekong Delta, while her husband escaped to America endlessly fighting to bring her over. 

While the combat may have ended in 1975, the effects of war run long and deep. Vo, born in Southern California and raised in the Vietnamese enclave of Garden Grove, grew up with the aftermath of war. The war prevented Vo from meeting her father until she was 18-years-old. The war separated her from her older sister until she was 15-years-old. And the war left Vo’s mother, an immigrant and a refugee, with few options and opportunities. To lessen the financial burden on her mother, the then 14-year-old Vo left the home she grew up in with her younger brothers and moved in with her grandmother. Unintentionally displaced from both her parents, Vo, nonetheless, embraced Nguyen with all her heart, and soldiered on. 

Despite many challenges, when she looks back on her childhood, Vo does not dwell on the struggles. Where others see hardship, Vo sees privilege. While some of her classmates were off to piano lessons or soccer practice, Vo would memorize national anthems, get lost in books or put on plays with her cousins. When her mother couldn’t afford her favorite toy, a Bop It!, she made one out of Styrofoam cups, chopsticks, a fork and tape. Circumstances forced her imagination to always take center stage. 

“I didn’t realize that my family was poor,” Vo reminisces. “I definitely always felt very privileged; we always had enough to eat and a roof over our heads. I did not feel like I was part of the have-nots.”

It was that optimistic and driven attitude that steered Vo through school. Former teachers, counselors and mentors unanimously describe Vo as ambitious, with one professor praising her “super-human level of energy and determination in the pursuit of her education.” When she realized her mother didn’t have a college fund, Vo set up a “scholarship factory” in her bedroom — an assembly line of recommendation letters, transcripts and personal statements. And it was no surprise that Vo received a number of scholarships, including the Earl Woods Scholarship. 

“Vina is a go-getter,” echoes Cristina Fernández, Tiger Woods Foundation’s senior director of programs. “She can achieve anything she sets her mind to. I know it sounds like a cliché, but obstacles and challenges are not going to stop Vina from anything.” 

An all-star at Garden Grove’s La Quinta High School, Vo decided it wasn’t enough to excel academically. She took on the role of student representative for the Garden Grove Board of Education. While sitting in on board meetings, she would offer student perspectives and share what her peers were doing within the district. Without hesitation, she approached Superintendent Laura Schwalm, and asked her to be her mentor. She credits her youthful naiveté for giving her the gumption to approach Schwalm and ask for her mentorship. And Vo was in need of a mentor. 

“She was so driven, so passionate, so successful,” Vo recalls of Schwalm. “I didn’t have anyone in my family that went to college, and we had similar backgrounds too; we both had to work hard to get through school. So it was great to learn from someone who lived through that.” 

Working with the Garden Grove Board of Education, and being mentored by Schwalm, was a game changer for Vo. She was awakened to the real inequality that exists within the education sector. Vo was alarmed to learn that race and zip code played a huge factor in student achievement. 

“Aren’t we all being educated by the same district? We all live within a few miles from each other. I couldn’t fathom that those factors could account for student achievement. That didn’t make sense to me,” Vo said. “Now I know the research behind it, but it still doesn’t make sense to me. Public education is supposed to be this thing that’s an equalizing factor, yet time and again that is not the case. That experience made me really passionate about education.”

Helping ignite Vo’s passion in education, Schwalm quickly saw that her mentee had much to offer the world. 

“There is a saying that ‘Your attitude determines your altitude,’ which could have been written as a tribute to her,” Schwalm shares. “She is the model of a ‘can-do’ attitude. I never saw her spend time looking for excuses, rather she always focused on what she could do, despite challenges she faced. She is someone who is always looking for how she can help others, and as often happens, in doing so great opportunities have opened for her.”

The first of many opportunities for Vo came in the form of her acceptance to the prestigious University of Southern California. For Vo, a first-generation college student, there was no doubt that college was the obvious next step for her. 

“I had an intensity in me. I always had a drive to do the best that I can do, and there was no question about it,” she explains. “I just had a drive that would push me forward all the time.” 

During her five years at USC, Vo earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a Master’s in urban planning. When she wasn’t studying or working, she volunteered her time tutoring second graders in some of Los Angeles’ roughest neighborhoods. Vo recalls a turning point for her — a moment when she sought advice from a teacher on how to get through to a young boy who lacked focus, discipline and struggled to read. Vo still remembers the teacher’s blunt response: “Oh, I’ve given up on him.” Vo was shocked and disturbed. 

“I felt sickened that I was even part of that conversation,” she recalls.  

What she did next best exemplifies Vo’s defining nature as a problem solver: She set out to shatter the cycle of poverty. Vo founded ACTIVE, Achieving Change Through Inspiring Values and Education. Vo knew that poverty, and all the problems that come along with it, led to the achievement gaps many kids were facing. 

“Where in the cycle of poverty do I want to be some sort of agent?” Vo asked herself. “Education for me was the main factor whether students would succeed or not. And tutoring did not feel transformative enough. I wanted to help build agency in students and build in them an empowering, resilient determination.”

ACTIVE worked specifically with students who wanted to be leaders and create change in their school. For Vo, if she could mentor 20 students who also wanted to end the cycle of poverty through education, and who then took what they learned and shared it with 100 students in their school, then, and only then, was she making an actual difference. Through ACTIVE, Vo tried her best to empower students. She would engage with them on academics, but also guide them when they came to her with personal problems. The students she worked with, once again, reminded Vo of her own personal privilege. 

“I wasn’t afraid of going to school. I wasn’t afraid of getting shot. I didn’t know a family member who was murdered by a gang member,” Vo shares. “So these students and what they go through are far beyond anything I could ever imagine. This is Los Angeles. You think movie stars and glamour. Yet right down the corner, you have students who save their school lunches so that they can bring it home for their younger siblings to eat. It has really informed my work after college.”

While Vo served as a mentor to underserved kids in downtown LA, the Earl Woods Scholarship Program continued to support Vo as she progressed through college. 

“What the foundation is really good at is being a home away from home,” she explains. “Giving you access to people who have been there, and done that was tremendous. I think the mentoring program is one of the most beneficial aspects of this scholarship.”

EWSP’s mentorship program made sure Vo didn’t and wouldn’t have to maneuver through college alone. EWSP pairs scholars with mentors, who stay in touch with them throughout college, and in Vo’s case, even beyond.

“To have access to someone you can talk to for professional advice, talk to about challenges academically, and even personal problems was beneficial not just while I was in college, but after college as well, Vo explains. “We are always going to need a little bit of help. Having this group of wonderful people to come to, to turn to, is really more than money can buy. I really appreciate it.”

Vo’s mentor, Tiger Woods Foundation’s vice president of events and fellow USC alum Michelle Bemis, saw in Vo her talent and ambition from day one. 

“She’s aspirational and a person of action,” shares Bemis. “She finds solutions to things that aren’t necessarily perceived as problems. She’s definitely an innovator in that she’s always looking for a new way. Vina is ready to join the next generation of change makers. She truly believes her actions today will impact tomorrow.” 

In both her personal and professional life, Vo is striving to change this world. Upon graduation from college, Vo started the Earl Woods Scholar Alumni Association as a way to not only stay connected to the foundation and the work it does, but to expand the opportunities for the EWSP alumni. 

“I wanted the alumni association to be an engine for alumni to stay connected with the foundation and help support the growth of the scholarship program and the current scholars,” she explains. “I feel that I have benefited so much from having caring adults in my life through the foundation that I would love to be able to offer that help to others.” 

And while her passion is fighting inequality within the domestic education sector, Vo, an avid world traveler, has shown her reach is global. 

“Every time Vina would travel to another country,” Fernández explains, “she would immerse herself in the culture, customs and community. She went there to learn from them as much as she was there to assist in whatever project she may have been working on.” 

Her work at an NGO in Ecuador allowed her to focus on indigenous women’s rights and climate change. And Vo’s volunteer work in Ghana allowed her to spend time on a microfinance project, building a community development bank for a 200-person village, teaching the importance of savings. 

“It took me years to realize that my true calling lied with working and helping people directly,” she said.  

Currently based in Washington, D.C., Vo left a promising career as a senior consultant at Ernst & Young to pursue her passion for education. Now at the educational nonprofit Digital Promise, Vo works with superintendents of 73 school districts across the country. She connects them with one another with the goal of helping them share and foster ideas around innovation and technology to better serve students. For Vo, she sees her life as truly coming full circle. She remembers sitting on the board of education, as a high schooler, with braces and acne, trying to make a minor but lasting impact on her district, school and peers. 

“This is my calling: education. For a lot of immigrant families like mine, there is not much else that can help you rise above your situation, other than education. That’s the only way I was going to make it,” she confesses. “My contributions, though seemingly small, have shown me that no matter how small I feel within this big world, I can, I will, and I will never stop trying to make a difference. Who knows, maybe I’ll run for the board of education one day.” 

And for all who know Vo and have seen her in action, there’s little doubt that it’s only a matter of time before she conquers all of her dreams.  

Champions of the unexpected for 20 years.