Journey to Freedom—The Survival Story of President Minh-Hoa Ta

In 1978, another wave of refugees fled Vietnam because of the government’s exclusion policy against Chinese. As a result, many overseas Chinese were forced to flee in dilapidated fishing boats into the unknown, leaving their successful lives behind in search of freedom. Dr. Minh-Hoa Ta, President of the University of the West, was one of these refugees. Dr. Ta accepted an invitation from Echo Tsai, the FGS Hsi Lai Temple Senior Activity Program Director, to share her survival story — From Refugee to a University President, on March 22. Forty senior students listened intently to her inspiring story.

Dr. Ta—whose parents were from Chaozhou, Guangdong—was Chinese and grew up in Vietnam. Her father ran a real estate business in Saigon, and her mother owned a jewelry store. She had eight brothers and sisters. In 1978, her family along with 40 other people fled Vietnam in a fishing boat seeking freedom. Their destination was Thailand but without any navigation they became lost at sea in a leaky ship adrift; eventually, landing on a small, deserted island. After being stranded for two days, a local fisherman discovered and reported them to the police, who offered limited assistance and immediately deported them back out to sea to drift. Luckily, they met a Korean merchant ship that kindly helped them fix their leaky boat and gave clear directions on where they should go to seek refuge. At sea for 14 days—with meager food and water—seemed like years. Ultimately, they found their destination, an Indonesian island, and were investigated by officials but not allowed to go ashore. Two weeks later, they were placed upon a cargo ship with livestock. After two days of traveling, they arrived on a larger outlying island with a refugee camp setup by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Finally, basic life needs were being met; however, their future was still unknown. After five and a half months, her family's immigration applications were prioritized and accepted into the Immigration Quota for the United States because Dr. Ta’s big brother once served as a soldier. In February 1979, they flew from Jakarta to Hong Kong and into Hawaii. Apart from their clothes and shoes, the only luggage they had was a pair of scissors and a bag of rice. The Customs Officer asked, "Why bring these things?" They responded, "This is all we have!" Arrival into San Francisco was on February 14th.

In an unfamiliar new world Dr. Ta’s family had to start completely over. At just 14 years old and waiting to enter high school in the fall, she saw her parents (in their ‘60s) struggling to make a living, her mother’s guilt and self-blaming behavior for leaving her grandparents behind in Vietnam, and her siblings working long, long hours. She became extremely motivated and determined to study hard and to bring honor to her family. After high school Dr. Ta’s education continued at UC Berkeley where she obtained a double bachelor's degree. Next, she finished master's and doctoral degrees at the University of San Francisco, while doing work-study and working several jobs resulting in attending school part-time. Dr. Ta accumulated 30 years of teaching and administrative experience, served as the Dean of Business and Workforce Development Division at San Jose City College and the Vice President at Ohlone College in California. In 2020, she was offered and accepted the position of the President of the University of the West. Along her life-journey, Dr. Ta has been most grateful for all the people who have helped her—all the bodhisattvas—and continually gives gratitude and carries them within her heart.

Numerous participants expressed their deep respect and thanked Dr. Ta for sharing her extraordinary story.

“Even in a difficult environment, President Ta still kept working hard and never forgot to thank the people who helped her. President Ta’s experiences truly inspire us, and we salute her,” praised Yuanmei Ma, the former FGS Hsi Lai Temple Senior Activity Program Director.

”President Ta’s achievement is a result of hard work and good family guidance. Her experience reminds us of the Russia-Ukraine war which is causing thousands of Ukrainians [to flee their homes and become] homeless. Those refugees will not be able to easily start new lives in a new environment. [We] hope the war will soon be over, so that they can go back to their [everyday] lives,” shared Counselor Changyu Xu.