A Journey Home
In 1970, Khiem “Tim” Tran and Thuy “Cathy” Trinh said goodbye to their families in war-torn South Vietnam and headed to America for a college education.
Named the top candidates in their country for an international scholarship, the two young adults ended up at Pacific University feeling as if they had won the lottery.
“Being able to get an education in the United States, or another Western country, was the ultimate dream of a young [South Vietnamese] person,” recalled Khiem “Tim” Tran ’74.
Neither could have imagined that five years later they would be back in Vietnam, trying desperately to escape the Communist takeover, nor that they would return to their friends at Pacific with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Like so many refugees of war and political persecution, they found themselves starting over. But in nearly 40 years, both Tim and Cathy have found tremendous career success. In 2017, they used that success to say “thank you” for the support they found at Pacific, establishing an endowment that will fund learning and discovery for students for generations to come.
"It became apparent to me pretty quickly that Khiem and Thuy were not the average international students."
“What we have done is just a small way to pay back what we received from Pacific — the kindness and the support from the university and from some very special people,” said Tim Tran.
Tim grew up the son of a civil servant and homemaker. Cathy was one of eight children, raised by her mother after her father died at age 36. She was encouraged by her oldest brother to pursue higher education.
“He saw that I was a bright young kid,” she told Pacific magazine in a 2004 interview. “To him, it didn’t matter if I was a boy or a girl.”
At Pacific, they embraced college life, making friends easily and becoming known for their intellectual curiosity and eagerness to learn about American culture and history.
A voracious reader who had limited access to books as a child, he spent long hours in the campus library, which he came to consider his “second dormitory.” His constant companion was an English dictionary used to decipher unfamiliar words.
Visiting campus earlier this year, he walked through what are now offices in what is now Pacific Hall — the library from his Pacific years — and pointed to a corner where he used to fall asleep reading.
“I always got the impression that Tim felt blessed to be given the opportunity to have a good education in America and took every opportunity to take full advantage of it,” said fellow Speech & Debate Team member Ronald Johnston ’72.
Cathy, too, blossomed at Pacific. She joined Theta Nu Alpha sorority and the Boxerettes women’s service group and often visited the homes of fellow students and professors, bringing Vietnamese dishes to share or cooking them on site.
“It became apparent to me pretty quickly that Khiem and Thuy were not the average international students,” said Professor Emeritus George Evans, who taught the Trans literature and writing.
“They read and read and asked countless questions about not just the texts, but the culture that produced them. I think in time they knew more about American culture than our American students did.”
A Tough Choice
After two years at Pacific, both Tim and Cathy opted to finish their educations at larger institutions. Tim studied accounting and finance at the University of California Berkley, and Cathy went to the University of Oregon to complete her bachelor’s in finance.
Tim was accepted into the MBA program at Berkley, but the federal agency that awarded his international scholarship wouldn’t extend his student visa.
And so he faced a difficult dilemma: stay in the United States illegally, enroll in a master’s program in Canada, as some friends suggested, or return to war-ravaged South Vietnam, as he and Cathy were supposed to under the terms of their scholarships.
“I concluded that returning to South Vietnam was the honorable thing to do,” Tim said. “I owed the South Vietnamese and the American governments a lot for my education.”
Tim and Cathy went home. Each landed a good job with U.S.-based firms: Tim as an internal auditor for Shell oil company and Cathy as a financial analyst for Esso.
In April 1975, though, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army and chaos ensued.
Tim, who had been a rising star at Shell, lost his job after the country’s Communist regime nationalized foreign-owned companies and fired workers suspected of being “unfriendly” to the government.
Cathy was assigned a book-keeping position at another nationalized entity but found herself reporting to former North Vietnamese soldiers who had been given plum jobs at the company, despite little education and few qualifications.
"We tried to escape many times and failed. We lost money trying to escape and were lucky not to get arrested."
Searching For A Way Out
In the aftermath of the war, hundreds of thousands of people fled Vietnam, and the country’s economy collapsed.
Tim and Cathy married quietly in a family-only ceremony just a month after the fall of Saigon. And they plotted their escape, each day filled with worry that their U.S. educations and ties to Western employers would lead to arrest.
“We tried to escape many times and failed,” Tim recalled. “We lost money trying to escape and were lucky not to get arrested."
Two of Cathy’s brothers and her uncle were sent to Communist “re-education camps.” Tim’s sister Thao was the only member of his family to get out before the country fell, landing in a refugee camp in the Philippines, where she was eventually able to contact his friends at Pacific for help.
She wrote a letter, addressed only to “Paul Hebb, Pacific University, Oregon.” Somehow, the missive arrived in Forest Grove.
Hebb and Roberta “Bobbi” Nickels ’70, who had worked with Tim at Pacific’s Upward Bound program for underprivileged kids, tried to sponsor the Tran family’s immigration to the U.S. Later, Nickels formed “Friends of Khiem,” a campus group of students, employees and alumni who raised money to try to fund their escape.
Though they were unable to bring Tim and Cathy to the States, Nickels did manage to sponsor Thao. The women became roommates and close friends. Thao improved her English-language skills and eventually earned a scholarship to study math at Pacific, graduating in 1980.
Taking To The Sea
In 1979, on a stormy night, Tim and Cathy passed themselves off as ethnic Chinese, joining 350 on a wooden boat designed to carry some 50 people. They would eventually cross the Gulf of Thailand into Malaysia.
Over the course of seven days, the boat was attacked by seven groups of pirates, armed with guns, grenades and machetes. The first group made off with buckets of gold, diamonds and money.
By the time the seventh group boarded the boat, there was little left to steal. One of the pirates demanded Tim’s prescription glasses and his Levi jeans at knife point. He quickly complied. Frustrated that there wasn’t much to steal, the pirates destroyed the water and food supplies, as well as one of the boat’s engines.
For two days, the refugee passengers had no food or water. One didn’t survive.
“Everybody was hungry, but the worst thing was the thirst,” Cathy said. “Suddenly, somebody said, ‘I see land.’”
The group waited until nightfall to approach the Malaysian coast. As their boat inched toward the shore, Tim persuaded the group to slam the boat into a rock, hoping to damage the vessel so that Malaysian authorities couldn’t tow it back out to sea.
The collision resulted in only minor damage, so the refugees jumped off and destroyed their boat by hand, reducing it to a pile of floating lumber.
Once ashore, the group was corralled by authorities into a makeshift, barbed-wire prison and later taken to an overcrowded refugee camp on an island off the coast. There, food was scarce and living conditions primitive, but most detainees were just grateful to have escaped Vietnam.
“The conditions were terrible, but nobody complained,” Tim said.
During their detention, Tim volunteered as a press liaison and interpreter for English-speaking delegations visiting the camp. Cathy taught English and worked as an interpreter too.
When asked by one reporter about his aspirations, Tim replied: “I would like to get to the United States, and I will do my best to be successful.”
Back in the USA
When Tim finally returned to Forest Grove in 1979, he carried all his belongings in a small, plastic sack.
“Khiem got out of the car carrying one small bag,” Nickels said. “He looked at me with his characteristic dry humor and said, ‘I travel light.’”
Getting re-established wasn’t easy. Tim borrowed $300 from Nickels, later repaid with interest, and friends co-signed for an apartment. He began applying to entry-level jobs, landing a low-level accounting position with Portland’s Johnston Supply.
He earned an MBA in night school and worked his way up the corporate ladder at Johnston, retiring in 2003 as chief financial officer. Since then, he has taught business, finance and taxes at colleges in the Portland area.
Cathy had an impressive career as well. She spent 18 years with U.S. Bank and 15 years at Standard Insurance. A Certified Public Accountant, she retired from the company in 2015 as a tax manager.
In 2017, the Trans returned to Pacific once again, their circumstances far different. Tim is now a trustee for the university, and the couple has established the Khiem “Tim” ’74 and Thuy “Cathy” Tran ’74 Library Endowment, providing perpetual support for learning at Pacific. The new campus library, built in 2005, was named in their honor.
Thirty-eight years after fleeing Vietnam, Tim stood at a podium in Trombley Square to say thank you for the inspiration, education and support he received at Pacific.
“Coming here today and attending this dedication is the completion of a long journey of 38 years and more than 10,000 miles,” he said. “I’m glad it ended right here.” ■
This story first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Pacific Magazine. For more stories, visit pacificu.edu/magazine.