Imagine you are a VSA member sitting in your general meeting hearing all the fantastical reasons why you should join VSA. What’s the one thing you have heard over and over again? That VSA is a community, a network of individuals who will benefit you and help you succeed well after college. I think we were all a little skeptical to hear that some student organization can do all these amazing things for you. After all, VSA is not some cosmic force that pushes you in the direction of your fate. VSA is a community, an expansion pack in the game of Life that gives you cards which present you with new challenges and big benefits. Today, I will talk about my VSA journey. Every single person mentioned (except my parents) was involved with VSA at one point or another, and they all played an equally important role in shaping my life when I least expected it.
Let’s rewind a bit. My mom came here with her first husband and daughter to America from Taiwan. My dad was a boat person, a refugee of the Vietnam war. My mom divorced her former husband after he cheated on her, and started a new life with my dad in Arlington TX. Growing up, they decided that since they were from two different cultures, they would raise my sisters and I English first. They wanted us to be educated, especially my mom because she dropped out of school when she was very young to take care of her family after her father died. They thought learning a new language on top of English would set us behind in school. To me, it meant they gave up a chance to teach us their culture because they wanted us to assimilate in America. This has always been something I've been incredibly insecure and teased about. Because I have never truly belonged to one cultural identity.
It’s August 2013. I’m a freshman studying Business at the University of Oklahoma. All my friends from high school who were Asian are telling me to go to this event and that event. And I go. I go to an AASA event, rush events, VSA events, pool parties,and cook-outs; it’s a blur honestly. I joined them all because I enjoyed the sense of belonging it gave me. I started to pick up responsibilities; member, officer, volunteer...it became really hard for me to maintain it all. I was 18, and I was already expected to know how to face all these problems I'd never faced before. I did not adjust well, it only made me become more vulnerable and insecure. I'd ask myself daily: "Am I doing it right?" "Do they like me?" "Do they think I'm crazy?" "Am I supposed to be somewhere right now?" "What did I forget to do?" All of these questions started to shake my foundations. Classes were hard; I had to sit at the back and sometimes on the floor of huge auditoriums. Office hours were limited and someone was always there. I tried to stay afloat and keep everyone happy, but I sank. I remember going to my adviser appointment where she told me I was kicked out of the business school because I didn’t meet the minimum required GPA. It was so hard for me to fight back the tears in front of her and go all the way back to my dorm. What was I supposed to do? I was here on scholarships, I had a limited amount of years and money to complete my degree. My parents couldn’t afford tuition. It sparked a horribly depressing time for me where I questioned my place in this world, or if there even was one for me.
At the encouragement of a friend Tue Dinh, who I met through work he’d done with my sorority, I applied for Marketing & Media director for his new conference. It was called ‘Oklahoma Unity Mixer’. I got the position, but I didn’t quite get how to do the position. I had no idea what I was doing or what was expected of me. But instead of writing me off as a failure, he actually coached me and helped me along. This changed everything in ways I wasn’t expecting. He took me to my first VSA event: UT Convention in February of 2015. It’s snowing that day we were supposed to leave. The roads were icy and slick, and I kind of didn’t want to go. But Tue Dinh was insistent that he was going to drive the entire way from Norman to Austin despite these terrible weather conditions. We drove probably 15 MPH the entire way while watching cars slide all over the road and arrived in Austin at 3:00 AM. I didn’t really know what to expect, so my non-existent expectations were exceeded by the incredible people I met that weekend. I loved the people, the programming, the environment. I felt, for the first time in a long time, really good about myself.
It’s March 2015 and I was registered to attend my very first Summit. Someone from my past asked me to come to an event the weekend of Summit, the same people who dropped me when things got hard for me. She said it would be fun, you should come and you can stay with me. I was hesitant because I didn’t believe that others really wanted me there, but I was hopeful. So I cancelled my Summit registration. I got added to my family with Danny Panda Nguyen, and immediately said “I’m not going anymore bye.” But that Friday morning, I wake up to see a text telling me not to go to that event anymore. To me, it felt like I’d put myself back out there hoping for acceptance and was met with rejection. I was hurt, then I was mad. Why did I keep putting myself out there, wanting their approval when they were not there for me when I needed them the most. They never asked about my well-being, they were only interested in superficial things I couldn’t give them. I immediately texted my coworker Chris Vu and said “do you have room for one more in your car on the way to Summit?” I packed up my things and hopped in his car hours later. It was there that I met some of the people who would continue to influence my life years and years into the future, people like Marvin Rivera, Tyler Tran, Ryan Valdez, Kennay Pham, and so many more.
A few years go by, and I found a lot of success and renewed confidence with my VSA work. I became Programming Director for OUM II, and worked alongside Steven Tran the Logistics Director at the time. He taught me the importance of going with the flow. We realized what a great team we were and became Co-EDs for OUM III. Right after that, I became Secretary for UVSA South. Finally, I graduated from the University of Oklahoma in May of 2017 after being afraid for years I’d never cross that finish line. This set me up for Act II of my life; I wasn’t having any luck at finding a job and I don’t do well with unstructured time. I had also gone through a dramatic breakup at the beginning of the summer, and my grandmother had passed away around the same time. Nothing felt constant, nothing felt hopeful for me.
Thanks to a scholarship from UVSA South, I was able to attend my very first UNAVSA in New Orleans in July of 2017. I was not in a great headspace going into it, but UNAVSA proved to be a turning point for me. At my highs I was happy to meet new people and learn new things, but at my lows I was crying hysterically at night in the stairwell so I didn't wake up my roommates. After UNAVSA was over, people were going out to do their post-UNAVSA shenanigans. I remember being presented with a choice: to go to Shamrock and party, or to stay in our Airbnb and tam su with a random group of individuals I didn’t know. I chose the latter. Enter Nancy Le. That night I bonded with a lot of incredible people and we all shared our personal stories. On my last night in New Orleans, my friends convinced me to go out to Bourbon street to which I reluctantly agreed. I didn’t have any makeup on because I was still seriously depressed and tired (I did not feel or look cute), but despite that this person walks up to me amongst a crowd of people and says “I think you’re really cute.” His name was Austin Langsy. Love really finds you when you least expect it.
After that, I was able to move past the hurt I’d accumulated in college and move on. I got a job at a small construction company in Dallas, thanks to a hot tip from Brian Michael Tran. Before moving to Dallas, I flew out to Seattle to visit Austin and we started dating. While I was in Seattle, Nancy Le contacts me with a job lead in Austin TX. I went through the first phone interview in his apartment. I didn’t hear back from them, so I decided to just go to the construction company job in case I didn’t get the job. I packed up my car full of the bare necessities, and drove from Tulsa OK to Dallas TX to live in a bedroom at Nick’s parent’s house. On my first day working for this construction company, I got the offer. I worked in Dallas for exactly three weeks before packing up my car again, and moving to Austin TX to live with Thomas Mai. Most of you know what happens next, because that’s right now.
VSA was there for me in almost all the major moments of my college career, and beyond. I would not have the things I do if it weren’t for the challenges I was presented with and the people who put me back together again. In my youth, before VSA, my ambition did not match my experience. I wanted to do all these incredible things but I fell short of what I wanted to achieve. That damaged my worth in people’s eyes, which now that I reflect on it makes me realize my value to these people was only in what I could give them. But what hurt the most was how unforgiving they were, how they let labels cling to me instead of seeing me for me. All they saw was a failure, a chronically depressed person they didn’t want to be around, or a girl who was stupid enough to get sexually assaulted at a party. Even today it’s really hard for me to forgive people for the labels they stuck to me that were untrue. They would assume that because I was depressed about school and my sexual assault, that I was lazy, asking for it, promiscuous, not worthy of their time, incapable, a failure, an ice queen, and more. It may be shocking to people who have only known the current version of me, but I think it goes to show you cannot fathom what people are capable of when you believe in them.
While not everyone has the VSA experience that I had, I hope that my story is an example of what happens when you open your heart up to opportunity. I can clearly see my life up to this point laid out like a choose your own adventure game. It’s why I do wonder from time to time what those alternate timelines would’ve presented to me. But then I drive through downtown Austin and remember how lucky I am to be here today. Dreams really do manifest themselves in unexpected ways. This is why I am such a believer in kindness and second chances. Sometimes all people need is a second chance to set them on a course for greatness. All it takes is that one person to alter the course of someone’s life. Whether that’s a director taking a chance on a committee member, a family leader paying special attention to one of their ducklings, or just reaching out as a friend to someone who you haven’t heard from in a while. We all play a vital role in reminding people they are special, important, and worthy of love.
Lillian Trinh is the current President of UVSA South. Previously she’s been Secretary and a Programming Committee member for UVSA South. She’s also served external regions as a UNAVSA CPP Campaign Team Member, NWVSA Family Leader, NWVSA AVT Committee Member, UVSA Gulf Coast AVT Director, and UNAVSA Civic Engagement Committee Member. She currently works as an Experience Coordinator at Poly in Austin, TX with her best friend Nancy Le. She loves to travel to other regions to meet new people and catch up with old friends.