| Thuy Pham-Remmele grew up in chaos. Literally. Born to her father, a wealthy landowner, and her mother in Hanoi in northern Vietnam, Pham-Remmele started her life in a secure, stable home. That all changed when her country, plagued by long-standing wars, divided in two, and thousands of North Vietnamese refugees headed south.
In 1954, after years of Japanese and British occupation during World War II and a long-standing battle with the French, the Geneva Conference divided Vietnam into two nations, North and South. Pham-Remmele's mother and her nine children headed south to escape the communist government of the North. Her father stayed behind with the intentions of meeting up with the family later on.
"My whole family line was from the North," Pham-Remmele said. "My father owned a lot of land and property. We left everything behind."
Pham-Remmele was only 5 years old at the time, but she remembers feeling the uncertainty that plagued her once stable family. She described it as a"'very unsure, painful, and horrendous time."
"People were selling things in the street," she said. "Families were split and were not sure if they would see one another again. It was a very chaotic and undecided time."
Pham-Remmele's family relocated and awaited the arrival of her father, who eventually found work with the government in South Vietnam. Pham-Remmele grew up under the constant threat of war.
"I have the mentality that nothing should be taken for granted," Pham-Remmele said. "I know that anything can be taken away. Growing up, we felt lucky if we still saw our siblings and had a school to go to."
| Pham-Remmele attended Saigon University where she remembers studying late and having to rush to shelter each night when the city was bombed. She describes sleepless nights and days filled with uncertainty. Still, she and other Vietnamese persisted, despite years of struggle. "It is very hard for people on the outside to understand Vietnam and its people," she said. "We did learn that we have to decide our own destiny. Whenever [a new country] came in with a new promise, we realized it was not for the long haul. In the end, it is our country and our destiny."
To this day, Pham-Remmele has mixed feelings about the country she grew up in. "I have always been a refugee in my own country," she said. "In my life, I moved a lot. I never stayed in a place for more than two years during my childhood."
Pham-Remmele earned a bachelor's degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages from Saigon University. She worked as an instructor for the Vietnamese-American Association in Saigon, the Armed Forces Language Schools, the Defense Language Institute, and the Modern Language Centers of Can-Tho and Hoa-Hao Universities. In the early '70s, she applied for a Fulbright Scholarship, in hopes of attending graduate school in the United States. She was awarded the scholarship and chose the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She left her war-torn country in 1973.
"Even two years after I left home, the war went on," she said.
Pham-Remmele studied English and American literature at UW-Madison and decided to stay after graduation. She remembers feeling somewhat intrigued by the American way of life.
"Life is so much harsher where I came from," she said. "In Madison, it was safe. Personal freedom and privileges were almost taken for granted here."
Pham-Remmele soon began a career with the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) that would last 28 years. She spent a number of those years as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. She also worked as an equity-diversity advocate and a multicultural resources specialist. She has received numerous awards including a Golden Apple Club honorary membership for "Significant Contribution to Educational Excellence"; a 1991-92 "Wisconsin Teacher-Scholar of the Year" award from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Reader's Digest; and an honorary fellowship by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Women's Studies Research Center for the 1985-86 school year.
In 1996, Pham-Remmele began a new position with MMSD as a minority-student achievement specialist. Her hope was to help minority students succeed in the district, which had been seeking ways to narrow the persistent achievement gap between minority students and their White counterparts. When the Minority Student Achievement Department was eliminated in 2001, Pham-Remmele was transferred to the city's Equal Opportunity Commission's office, where she was responsible for coordinating outreach programs for the Asian American community. She worked part-time for the school district and part-time for the city. In 2003, she was named one of "Ten Who Made a Difference in Madison in 2002" by the Wisconsin State Journal. She retired from the school district in 2003.
Pham-Remmele had retired from her job, but has not given up on making a difference in her community. She remains active in the Madison Vietnamese Community Association and other areas of the community.
"In many ways, I am still an idealist," she said. "I am still very devoted to my community because I live here. In a way, I feel like I have so much left to give."
|Thuy Pham-Remmele: From Saigon to Madison
By Laura Salinger
|to Nov. preview|