Lessons from Vietnam make culture come alive for Vietnamese American student at Cornelia Connelly high

Taryn Diep taking vitals and helping with dentistry for children as part of being a volunteer for project Vietnam. (Photo: Trinh Diep)

Titi Mary Tran/ Nguoi Viet English

Students at Cornelia Connelly School, a Catholic college-preparatory high school for girls in Anaheim, are encouraged to do community service as part of their graduation requirements and it sparks a lifelong passion for serving.

Such is the case for Taryn Diep, 17, who volunteered for Project Vietnam to care for the sick and vulnerable in Vietnam.

Diep, who has dreamed of being a doctor since her early years, said, “I have never been out of the country before, let alone all the way halfway across the world, and I have never been to a communist country especially. I can speak Vietnamese, not exactly fluent, but I can understand, read and write. I was nervous to see how I would do in an environment where almost everything was basically foreign to me.”

Diep arrived in Vietnam in Saigon in March 2018 and they traveled to a rural area near Quang Tri in the country’s central region, where her team set up four work stations for four different days of their stay. Project Vietnam, launched in 1996, is a nonprofit of the American Academy of Pediatrics providing hygiene, medical and educational facilities in Vietnam.

Diep’s tasks included helping to set up administrative procedures and check points in the dental and pharmacy service areas; regulating the patients’ arrival and departure; taking vitals for children and adults; scheduling doctor appointments for the patients; helping with dentistry for children.

Taking vitals as part of being volunteers for Project Vietnam. (Photo: Trinh Diep)

“It was a very strict and straightforward regiment. We did not have much time there, so we made the most of it,” Diep said.

That included packaging medicines and vitamins to give out to patients for the next day before dinner time.

But this Anaheim resident could not help but feel out of place when she first stepped in the country of her parents’ birth.

“When we came to Vietnam, the officials at the airport asked us why we had so much children’s gummy vitamins and stuffed animals” which we planned to distribute to kids. “I was scared.” Diep said.

But she overcame the culture shock when she was reminded of her mission.

“When we came with the rest of the volunteers to a very little airport in Saigon, it was amazing to see how many volunteers were there and how many people came together, especially not all of them are Vietnamese or Asians,” she recalled. “I felt a sense of pride, remembering who I was and what human race is in general.”

That sense of pride about humanity and how strangers can unite for good deeds while standing on Vietnam soil is a rare feeling for the younger generation of Vietnamese Americans, many who only know of their heritage through books, movies and popular culture.

Team of volunteers for project Vietnam. (Photo: Trinh Diep)
Taryn Diep with children in Vietnam. (Photo: Trinh Diep)

“To see so many medical students and retired doctors go [to Vietnam] and do their best to help everyone that they could. These doctors would see hundreds of patients a day and they did not complaint at all. [I realized] that is just how dedicated we are to help other in needs,” Diep reflects. “I felt I could do more. I didn’t want to leave Vietnam.”

Diep is now involved with other aspects of Project Vietnam and is organizing a toy drive for small and medium stuffed animals to give out to children after their surgeries for her upcoming project in March 2019, when she will go on another medical mission to Vietnam.

“You don’t have to be an adult to make an impact on the world. You can make an impact even in your own community no matter how old you are,” Diep said.

Cheri Wood, head of school at Cornelia Connelly, is highlighting community work like Diep’s while trying to do outreach to diverse communities, including to Vietnamese Americans, and spreading awareness about the special programs that the school offers.

Helping elder with medical needs. (Photo: Trinh Diep)

Here’s a Q&A with Wood sharing more of her thoughts:

Q: In Southern California, in light of the diverse environment we live in, what are the benefits of a Catholic school education vs. a public school education?

Wood: I think the benefit is the sense of community and the understanding of diversity; and the discussion surrounding all types of diversity whether it’s the understanding of different religion or understanding of theological topics or philosophical topics. We have the ability to talk a lot about those things. We could really dive into the culture a little bit deeper. Because of that, we celebrate it. We happen to be a very diverse community ourselves – 73% of our students identified as young women of color. So we are more diverse than we are not. We really celebrate that and learn from each other. It’s more of an open community in all aspects of life.

Q: What kind of programs do you have to celebrate cultural diversity in the school curriculum?

Wood: Our theology curriculum is world religion and social justice. We spend a little of time on understanding world religion. We also have a global solidarity program where we work with Catholic Relief Services. We celebrate global solidarity and we send our students to England and to Ghana. We have a group of students going to India and England last year so we have a very global perspective.

Our students have exchange programs in our sister schools and also service programs outside. We are considered a platinum program school in term of services to our own community, to the local community of people who are underserved and have needs and also to the broader international community. And that’s through Catholic Relief Services so we spend a lot of time focusing on outside of our little walls.

Q: What is the school population – please give a breakdown of the demographics?

Wood: Demographically, 73% of our 120 students are non-Caucasians and 16.7 percent (of that) is Vietnamese. In our Asian student population, we have international students from China, South Korea. We have a lot of different languages, a lot of international flairs to our student body. We are, I believe, 30% Hispanic, and the others are multinationals. We take time to celebrate their holidays and religious celebrations like we do our own Catholic celebration.

Q: How do you encourage community service among students?

Wood: It is a graduating requirement for our students but what we try to do is blend it into our curriculum so we offer them all kinds of opportunity throughout the year. We also have all school service day during global solidarity week, where the entire community goes out into our local community. We might do some environmental work. We might work with the homeless. We actually harvest food. We help people prepare for jobs interviews.

The girls go out. You see how articulate our girls are. They go into the community and they work with people that are trying to get back at the job market.

We send the girls out all in one day so the whole campus is gone on different project, but then during the school year, each girl has their own individual project that they need to meet service requirement hours.

At the end of their time here as a senior, they present their service hours in their senior exit interview. They do a presentation on themselves and their services that they’ve done over the course that they have been here. It’s like a capstone of their whole experiences as an individual in our school, but also sort of help them prepare for job interview and giving presentations and things like that. So they have to talk about it, not just write a paper but they have to discuss it with us and answer questions.

Q: How do you emphasize staying updated on technology for students?

Wood: We have a technology coordinator that is someone who has technical ability, but we also have an educational technology leader teacher as well. We went one-on-one with iPads that was really early on, when schools were doing that. And we put the ideas center, a place for students to brainstorm their ideas and experimentation. Most of those things are in the maker space.

Now we are at that point where we are looking at what we’re doing and we start to think about a lot things that Apple Classroom offers for us. So we got the infrastructure in and it’s time to rotate things out and bring in the new. We’re really excited about developing a new technology plan.

Q: What partnerships do you have with other schools?

Wood: We have something called tri-schools. That is with the boys school, Servite, in Irvine and another girls school, Rosary, in Fullerton. Mostly, there are two ways that we coordinate with each other. One is through theater. The boys school has about 800 students, much larger than both of the girls school. It’s a theater program and our girls take courses and also audition and participate in the musical and the plays. So the three schools fund our theater program.

Also, all of our social events, whether it’s our prom or homecoming, are coordinated with the three schools. Our classroom environments are very focused on young women and their voice and their intellect. They also have a social structure that is bigger and coed. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds.

We have prayers, theological groups that happen once a month, and our comedy sport, an after school class learning comedy and improvisation. It happens at Servite.

Our dances, homecoming and games are about once a month. You’re not isolated in all-girls environment. You have a broader social community, but you really get to focus on who you are, and developing who you are when you’re here, and how to be a sister, how to be a friend, how to support other women and all of those things that are so important in this day and age. It’s really neat because we are small enough for that to happen, you can’t get lost.


Báo Người Việt hoan nghênh quý vị độc giả đóng góp và trao đổi ý kiến. Chúng tôi xin quý vị theo một số quy tắc sau đây:

Tôn trọng sự thật.
Tôn trọng các quan điểm bất đồng.
Dùng ngôn ngữ lễ độ, tương kính.
Không cổ võ độc tài phản dân chủ.
Không cổ động bạo lực và óc kỳ thị.
Không vi phạm đời tư, không mạ lỵ cá nhân cũng như tập thể.

Tòa soạn sẽ từ chối đăng tải các ý kiến không theo những quy tắc trên.

Xin quý vị dùng chữ Việt có đánh dấu đầy đủ. Những thư viết không dấu có thể bị từ chối vì dễ gây hiểu lầm cho người đọc. Tòa soạn có thể hiệu đính lời văn nhưng không thay đổi ý kiến của độc giả, và sẽ không đăng các bức thư chỉ lập lại ý kiến đã nhiều người viết. Việc đăng tải các bức thư không có nghĩa báo Người Việt đồng ý với tác giả.

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