a message to the class of 2012

volunteering at walnut creek tet festival - 2005


There have been two momentous occasions this month that have led me to think back to college and what has transpired since my time on the 40 acres. I recently attended Cathy and Daniel’s wedding, and it was a VSA reunion, filled with good company and great memories.  Serendipitously, I was asked to keynote the VSA convention in Austin this past weekend, so while all these thoughts were floating around in my head, I knew I had to put them to paper and deliver a speech. And here lies the inspiration for this post, a message to the class of 2012: VSA – what I’ve learned and how it’s shaped me.

volunteering at walnut creek tet festival - 2005

Why did I join VSA? Honestly, I saw free pizza, a cool shirt, and tons of people standing around Jester, so I thought, why not? The better question is, why did I stay? At first it was the connections I made. I met some wonderful friends through VSA that are still some of my closest friends today. I also saw the potential in this organization. At the time, it was the largest Asian-American organization on campus, and I knew when you put that many smart, ambitious people in a room, you could make a huge impact on the university. And that’s what I aimed to do.

I didn’t realize at the time that the people I met and the activities I participated in would put VSA on the map at UT and influence me profoundly. I quickly got involved in dancing for VSA and joined the performance group for Texas Revue. We would later go on to perform multiple times for other organizations, charity events like Dance Marathon, even the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce and represent the asian community at UT. It was through dance that I met my closest friends and experienced the opportunity of teaching and giving people the chance to explore something they never imagined they could do. I can see now how this influenced me in becoming a yoga teacher. I also began playing football for the first time. Having never played in my life, I would never imagine that 10 years later I’m still playing in city leagues and tournaments with some of the same people I now consider family. And lastly, the officers had a wonderful impact on me that inspired me to run for President. Like, I said, you never realize how some of the people you meet in college will impact you. Well the President before me would play a critical role in my life years later when her husband gave me a job opportunity that allowed me to move back to Austin.

The other major impact VSA had on my life was my exposure to the Vietnamese culture. Honestly I was embarrassed in my ability to speak Vietnamese when I ran for President. I began to take Vietnamese language classes and learn about the history of Vietnam through events like Black Friday, a commemoration of the fall of Saigon. It was these experiences that would later inspire me to convince my family to return to Vietnam for the first time after 35 years and allow us to share that wonderful gift together. I used to also volunteer at Walnut Creek Elementary, mentoring young students and teaching them dance performances for their annnual tet festival. It felt good to give back and be involved with the Vietnamese community in Austin. This would later influence my passion to give back to Vietnam through my work with Room to Read. Again, I never imagined at that time how my values would be shaped by these experiences.

Lastly, VSA and all my experiences at UT taught me the essence of leadership. Learning to become a leader by balancing school, work, and student orgs was a pretty daunting task for a college student. It taught me ruthless prioritization and how to really focus on total leadership – a concept that I wouldn’t be able to crystallize in to words for years to come. I actually got accepted in to Business Honors and Plan II but decided against a double major to be able to take on additional fun classes and officer positions in VSA and Orange Jackets to enhance my college experience. While this choice led me to take architecture and study abroad in Barcelona, I always wondered what I’d be doing for a living if I chose Plan II. But it was through this decision that I began to learn how to truly focus at such a young age, and this would impact the way I live my life today – ruthlessly prioritizing work with travel with yoga with Room to Read with time for myself and family.

So what is my advice? I thought long and hard about the message I wanted to share with these green, ambitious students from universities all over the south. I can distill my approach in to 3 things:

  1. Live with passion. Know what moves you and understand your values – this will help you recognize opportunities as well as when to say no. I remember crying in my speech while running for VSA president. That helped me realize how badly I wanted the role. I also bawled like a baby throughout Leaving Microsoft to Change the world, and I knew the ball was set in motion for my involvement in Room to Read. Lastly, my life changing trip to India sealed my fate with yoga and set forth my desire to spread a message through yoga.
  2. Surround yourself with inspiring people. Assign a Life Board of Directors and consult them often. You never know how these people will impact you down the road, but nothing beats having someone to listen as you seek to understand your own thoughts and ideas. Choose people who inspire you, check in with them periodically, and be open to feedback but always make decisions for yourself.
  3. Lastly, have focus. Trying everything once. I mean it. Your first hand experiences are the source for understanding your values and who you are as a person. But be picky with how you choose to spend your time. Pick 2 or 3 things to do and do them well. These experiences will shape who you become and the the message you will deliver, so it’s important that they have depth. Be present in your life and relationships and always find time to write and think.

I remember my time at UT and the lasting memories we created. Go to Gregory gym, and you’ll see VSA’s picture on the wall as IM flag football coed champions in 2003 and runner up in 2004. Go through the Texas Revue archives, and you’ll find our videos for Best Overall Performance in 2003 and Best Technical in 2005. Check out the Vietnamese language course we petitioned to be added to the curriculum. Look for the South Vietnam flag which can now officially wave in Austin. If I could speak to myself in 2002 when I first stepped on to the 40 acres, I would say: Go forth and leave your mark on this place. Realize that you are in a position to create change, and more importantly, do it. Nothing can stop you!

A message I live by: “I’ve always felt that as long as you are alive, you should be doing something that makes a difference…you don’t have to do big gigantic things. Just do things incrementally that make a difference.” – Barbara Jordan

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