Long night’s journey into day

Saint Joseph's scholarship helps Vietnamese refugee transform her life

Swab Nguyen Goodahl

Swan Nguyen Goodahl '79 remembers the morning the Vietnam War ended.

It was 4 a.m. when her family escaped Saigon on a naval ship, just hours before North Vietnamese soldiers entered the South Vietnamese capital on April 30, 1975.

A relative who was captain of the ship got word to Swan's family: get out. Leave with us on the ship. "We knew we wanted to leave, but didn't know to where or how," remembers Swan.

Swan, whose name in Vietnamese is Nga, says her last days in Saigon were very depressing. "It was like being a rat running in the maze."

"We knew the end was coming," she recalls. "We knew the cities to the north were falling. They were digging trenches for tanks near the city."

Her mother and father had fled North Vietnam in 1954 when the Communists came to power there. She says intellectuals and those with wealth were tortured in the North, so that when Saigon fell, her family expected the worst - Swan's father was a dentist and her mother was a teacher. "We had a house and a car. We would be on the blacklist," she says.

Rumors were swirling and there was no place to run. The ship sent a canoe to get people. "There was a big crowd on the riverbank; everyone wanted to go. They took women and children first, but the canoe broke down and didn't go back for the men. The officers told the ship's captain: ‘We must leave now.'"

Swan's father was left behind. He and Swan's cousin later tried to escape the country, but were captured and placed in a concentration camp. Her father died there.

The American fleet stationed offshore guided the Vietnamese naval ship with Swan's mother, her six sisters and her brother to the Philippines, where they boarded a boat for Guam. From there, they were transported to Pennsylvania.

Aware that many Mainers would come forth as sponsors, Saint Joseph's President Bernard Currier and Governor James Longley collaborated to relieve crowded conditions in the Pennsylvania receiving camp by bringing refugees to Saint Joseph's College that summer.

A few dozen refugees, including Swan's family, came to campus, where they lived in dorms and ate in the dining hall for two to three weeks until they could find sponsors. Swan, who spoke a little heavily accented english that she had learned in high school, became a vital link between the refugees and the Sisters.

"The Sisters were so nice. I fell in love with Sr. Mary George O'Toole when I first met her," she recalls. "I wanted to be a doctor, but I figured that was no longer possible. Next thing I knew, I was invited to the President's Office and offered a scholarship."

According to Sister Mary George, President Currier and the Sisters knew from the start that Swan had the ability, stamina, and desire to pursue college, but figured it would be years before her family could afford it. "So, we stepped in and made the offer," she says.

"Swan responded in ways that caused everyone to marvel at her ability to adjust to our ways and make strides in her education.

We were enriched by her presence and by her person," she adds.

Swan's family found a sponsor in Winterport, Maine, and she moved there until it was time to come back to start school in the fall.

"It was lonely, but everyone was nice," she remembers. "Mrs. Hancock taught biology, and at end of year I opened my mouth and asked one question. She came up and congratulated me."

It took a year on campus for Swan to learn English. She carried a dictionary around at all times and went to lunch with a crowd, so she could just listen.

Swan recalls that her mother asked Sister Joyce Mahany to watch over Swan. "Sr. Joyce took ‘keeping an eye on me' very seriously," she says. "She made sure I wore socks in the winter and used to yell at me if I went out with wet hair in cold weather ... I called her mom because she was always very caring."

Other Sisters were nice to her as well. For example, Sister Mark Cook collected money and had a Vietnamese dress made for her when she graduated.

Looking back, Swan says she's glad she came to Maine first. "I come from a conservative culture and if I had come to a more aggressive area, it would have been a bigger culture shock."

A biology major, Swan heard about osteopathic medicine from her professors and decided to follow her dream of becoming a doctor. She completed her osteopathic medical degree at Kansas City Medical School University of Health Sciences. After residencies in internal medicine and surgery, she is now happily employed as an emergency room doctor.

Just before she left Vietnam, she was confirmed as a Catholic and began to take religion more seriously. "Since then it's been working for me. It helped me a lot when I had to leave Vietnam. It gives me the ability to accept things ... and (it gives me) detachment."

An old high school classmate who just came back from Vietnam told her that things have changed a lot. "It has been slow progress, but now Vietnamese enjoy a life pretty close to the time before '75 ... So I'm happier knowing my people are better now."

Swan lives with her American-born husband and 14-year-old son in Virginia. eventually, she plans to visit Vietnam with her son, Alexander, who loves Vietnamese food and spending time with his Vietnamese relatives.

Her view on the Vietnam War after all these years? "I think it is sad, especially how it ended. The suffering of the millions of South Vietnamese under the Communists is largely unknown to the rest of the world," she says.

The stage for her early life, the war had a tremendous influence on Swan: "It molded me in many ways, at a time when I did a lot of growing up, changing from a teen to an adult. Therefore, it will always be part of me."

by Charmaine Daniels

How did Saint Joseph's change my life?

First of all, if not for the scholarship, it would take a very long time before I could achieve my career goal of becoming a doctor. I might not even be able to do so at all.

The gentle, supportive environment at St. Joe's was what I really needed at that time of my life when I was dealing with the shock of losing so much at once.

I mentioned how nice the Sisters were, but everybody else was nice, too. The professors put up with my essays full of misspelling and gave me encouraging comments. Dr. Anne Golubisky was a great role model. One fellow student let me copy her notes in history class, because I could not understand enough English to take notes. I would have flunked that class if not for her. I can remember countless other acts of kindness.

One time when I was talking to Sr. Mary de la Salle at one of the events, something brought up the sadness of losing my country. She told me her parents had been immigrants, and they adopted this country out of their appreciation for it. Years later, when I became a citizen, I remembered that conversation with her.

I fell in love with this country not because of the advantages it offers, but because of the beauty of its people and the people I met in Maine ... the Sisters of Mercy made a wonderful introduction to the American people.

- Swan Nguyen Goodahl '79