The fundamental duties of a university professor are to teach and conduct research, but Linda Trinh Vo, UCI professor of Asian American studies, believes a third component is just as important: to give back to the community.
In addition to her scholarship and teaching, Vo commits her time to fostering strong connections between UCI and the local population, particularly Vietnamese residents – of which Orange County has the most outside Vietnam. Her community-building efforts include the UCI-based “Viet Stories: Vietnamese American Oral History Project,” a digital archive that collects, saves and shares the life stories, documents and photographs of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants who arrived in Southern California, mainly after the end of the Vietnam War.
“We feel a responsibility to capture and preserve these stories for future generations,” says Vo, director of the project. “In contrast to the misrepresentations of these people in popular culture, they tell a much more complex narrative of the population and are being used by students and researchers around the world.”
In addition to co-authoring a historical photography book about the Vietnamese in Orange County, she has co-curated four exhibitions based on “Viet Stories,” the largest a five-month-long showing at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda. They showcased artifacts from the archive and community members, as well as works by more than 20 internationally renowned Vietnamese artists.
Often, the only things those fleeing Vietnam took with them were the clothes on their backs, some documents and – if they were lucky – a few photographs, Vo notes, so the exhibitions were able to display some of these treasured items. The shows also included such unique objects as a hand-drawn map that refugees used to navigate their fishing boat in the open ocean; a record player that someone’s grandfather had carefully carried with him during his escape; and a bamboo pipe made by a political prisoner during his 15 years of confinement before rejoining family members who had left for the U.S. a decade before him.
“Given the trauma of war and displacement, there can be silences within families about the past, so there’s a lot of healing that I think our project has generated, as well as intergenerational dialogue,” Vo says. “It’s educating the community about the invaluable resources and expertise that institutions such as UCI have that can assist with preserving our past so that we can be included in history books and museums.”
Finding her field
Vo didn’t originally want to teach – in high school she had a fear of public speaking – but was inspired by some of her undergraduate professors to think about becoming an academic since she enjoyed the process of research. Her stepfather, an American of Czechoslovakian descent, worked for the U.S. Embassy in various locales around Asia and Europe, and these travels contributed to her comparative perspective. He and her Vietnamese mother, neither of whom had attended college, also encouraged Vo’s intellectual curiosity and higher education aspirations.
During her first year of graduate school at UC San Diego, where Vo was pursuing a doctorate in sociology, a visiting lecturer suggested that she attend an Association for Asian American Studies conference. The experience was transformative, and she switched from specializing in area studies to Asian American studies, graduating in 1995. Nearly 20 years later, Vo would become president of the AAAS, serving from 2014 to 2016.
At UCSD, she taught in the newly formed ethnic studies department, then completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the same department at UC Berkeley, followed by a faculty appointment in the sociology department at Ohio’s Oberlin College. Vo later joined the comparative cultures department at Washington State University before coming to UCI in 2000.
Since then, she has co-edited several books and written one of her own, Mobilizing an Asian American Community. Building upon this publication, her current book project is about Asian Americans and racialized relations in Southern California.
Vo is also co-authoring a book inspired by her work in the local Asian American populace. It’s based on “Transforming Orange County: Assets and Needs of Asian Americans & Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” an extensive report she co-wrote last year with UCI graduate student Laureen Hom that was completed in collaboration with UCI’s School of Social Sciences and School of Humanities and one of the nation’s largest Asian American civil rights organizations, Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
“The piece is directed at advocates and policymakers,” Vo says. “Through extensive interviews with 20 community leaders, it examines the diversity of the community; shows how they’re shaping Orange County economically, politically and socially; and highlights the instrumental role they’ll continue to play in the future formation of the county.”
Vo describes UCI and the surrounding area as “an incredibly vibrant place to do research.” Additionally, she finds plenty of opportunities nearby to engage with her other two passions: film and theater.
“When I was growing up, there were few Asian American artists, playwrights, films or authors,” Vo says. Wanting to do something about that, she helped the Orange County-based Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association host its inaugural Viet Film Fest (formerly the Vietnamese International Film Festival) at UCI in 2003. It’s now an annual four-day gala held closer to Little Saigon. Vo looks forward to being one of three co-curators for the upcoming event in October.
She also partners with South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa to support Asian American plays and has had actors, directors and playwrights as guest speakers in her large introductory Asian American studies classes, which are filled with science, technology, engineering and math majors. This quarter, Vo is co-teaching the Humanities Core class of over 900 students, many of whom had never been to a professional playhouse before, and had them attend SCR’s world premiere of a drama about Vietnamese refugees that has a modern twist and is filled with humor and hip-hop.
“Exposing them to cultural opportunities is a wonderful educational experience that gives them a moment to reflect, particularly in this crucial period where race, immigration and citizenship are extremely relevant to today’s political discussions,” she says.
Now more than ever, Vo recognizes that her work is aligned with how she started: as a first-generation college student, like so many of the young adults she teaches today, with a global curiosity and an eagerness to get involved.
“The students at UCI come from all over the world and enrich my teaching experience,” Vo says. “They inspire me to think about new research projects, and I learn a lot from them. I get to see the interconnections through their lives, in the society we live in and on the campus.”