2011-05-27 / Neighbors
Setting sail on a dream career
Former Vietnam refugee bitten by the teaching bug
LeeAnne Vinh Powers, then 5 years old, ducked into her family’s foxhole, a refuge replicated in every home in her tiny village in South Vietnam.
This was routine for the little girl who’d never opened a book: shrapnel, gunfire and possible death.
Now 42, the Simi Valley resident reflects on the violence that invaded her childhood.
“I didn’t realize how precious life can be,” she said.
Powers was born in Vietnam, the fourth of five children, to Chinese parents who left their native country after the Japanese began dropping bombs there in 1945.
After war broke out in Vietnam, Powers’ father fought in fields alongside other Chinese immigrants. In 1974 he was captured by guerillas and imprisoned for nearly two years. Powers didn’t know whether her father was dead or alive.
In 1975, he was released, his life spared because his skills as a mechanic were useful at the POW camp.
Soon after he left prison, he began building a ship to take his family away from the battles that went on for almost two decades. Powers was separated from her father again as he worked on the vessel that would carry her to an improbable future: After leaving Vietnam at age 10 with her family, she entered a classroom for the first time at age 12. Three decades later, earlier this month, she earned a liberal arts degree from Cal Lutheran and continues to work toward her goal of becoming an elementary school teacher.
In 1978, Powers and her family were among 400 passengers who left Vietnam on the wooden ship her father helped build, headed for Australia.
Before leaving their homes, the travelers had spent all their money on precious metals and stones to trade for necessities in a foreign place.
“We couldn’t take luggage with us. We had just the clothes on our back. I remember seeing barrels of gold and jewelry and thinking, ‘Wow. That is just unbelievable,’” Powers said.
On their third day at sea, they were robbed by Thai pirates.
Powers recalled seeing about 20 men with scarred faces and guns. The pirates had been following them all night. At dawn, the thieves tied their boat to the emigrants’ ship, broke their compass and destroyed their engine.
“ They searched each person— all 400 people—for gold and valuables,” Powers said.
Undeterred, her father rebuilt the engine and they traveled at night only, guided by the stars and the moon.
After two days the group reached Malaysia. The country didn’t welcome refugees. In exchange for a Rolex watch, hidden from the pirates in the boat’s wooden slats, they were led to an uninhabited island of Indonesia, where they lived for one year before moving to a larger island.
After about nine months on the second island, the family’s restless patriarch decided to move to the United States and sought sponsorship from relatives in Nevada and California.
In 1980, almost two years after leaving their community in Vietnam, the family left the refugee camp for Las Vegas, then for Simi Valley, where they settled.
Adventure in education
Powers was 12 when she started sixth grade at Walnut Grove Elementary, now the site of Grace Brethren High School.
She didn’t know a word of English and had never learned the alphabet in any language. She attended ESL classes, where none of the teachers spoke her Cantonese dialect and most of her classmates spoke Spanish.
“It was a difficult process to learn English. The teachers were really experienced, caring and compassionate. But it was hard to make friends,” Powers said.
Still, she loved school.
“ The atmosphere for me was exciting. All of my senses kicked in. I’d feel a book, see the words in it, smell the paper. I loved the smell of books. Using a pen was a privilege,” she said.
Powers repeated sixth grade, but by the time she reached eighth grade at Hillside Middle School, she no longer needed ESL classes.
The dedicated student went on to attend Royal High School, where she was motivated to finish a semester early by a youth employment program that placed her at the Ventura County Courthouse the summer after ninth grade.
“After the summer program I really wanted to go to work. Dad said, ‘You have to finish high school. That’s why we came here. Education is free,” she said.
By then, she knew she wanted to be a teacher. After two years at Moorpark College, where she put off declaring a major in education because of her difficulties with English, Powers attended a job fair and was offered work at a clothing company.
She worked there for six years, married, started a software consulting business with her husband and had a son.
Years later, as an aide in her son’s first-grade class at Crestview Elementary, Powers rediscovered her passion with the help of his teacher, Irene Marcuson.
“I volunteered in my son’s class and got lots of encouragement. My son’s teacher said, ‘This is your calling. Go back to school and get your degree,’” Powers said.
“In China, a teacher is considered a master with extraordinary knowledge. I wanted to be a teacher, but as a foreigner learning English I wasn’t confi- dent,” she said.
Marcuson, who taught at Crestview for 18 years and retired in 2009, said Powers was an exemplary volunteer who worked well with kids.
“She was very organized and very helpful. She was a constant source of encouragement. She could anticipate what needed to be done. The children just loved working with her,” Marcuson said.
“I look forward to her teaching career. The children who get her as a teacher will be blessed.”
In 2008, Powers enrolled in the Adult Degree Evening Program at Cal Lutheran. On May 14, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies.
She hopes to be back at Cal Lutheran in the fall to get her teaching credential, the final step before becoming an elementary school teacher.
“The passion of learning was always within me. Seeing kids learn and finally understand a concept makes me so excited for them,” Powers said.