Vahn Chang's journey from Laos to law school

Few Woodruff Scholars come to Emory with experiences as dramatic as escaping a despotic government or living in a refugee camp. For Vahn Chang, such experiences early in life helped shape the dreams she pursues today.

Chang, 22, is a Laotian refugee of Chinese ancestry. Her family's struggle to get to the United States began during the political unrest that occurred in Laos in the early 1970s, when communist leader Pathet Lao took over the standing government and imposed his own sanctions. The Chang family, who owned a small grocery store, watched as Lao forced manual labor on Laotians and closed the country's borders. The communist faction in power was against free enterprise, and the family's grocery store was closed.

"The whole country was in shambles," Chang said. "I had a brother who was sick a lot, and my parents had to play doctor and get medicine for him from the black market. Conditions in Laos were getting dangerous."

There was, however, a way out--an aunt who lived in the United States. Chang's parents began working on a plan to get the family out of the country. They paid guides to take Chang, her brother, grandmother and aunt through the backwoods of the country to the border, where a boat would take them to Thailand until they were accepted into the United States. "We walked for days through the countryside," Chang said. "I don't remember much--I was three years old at the time--but we made it to the Mekong River, on which we were to sail down to the border. On the river, we were caught and all of us had to go to jail."

Fortunately, the stay was short-lived. "My grandmother went to government officials, came up with some money and we were released," Chang said. The family stayed with Chang's grandmother until a second attempt to reach Thailand proved successful. Chang's parents remained in Laos until it was safe for them to escape, and the entire family was reunited in Thailand, where the family lived in a refugee camp for four years.

"We had a house made of bamboo," Chang recalled. She also remembers the monsoons, which would bring foot-high waters that soaked the house. With no electricity, the house was heated with charcoal rods, and laundry was done by hand. "At the time the United Nations had a foreign aid policy that helped a lot," Chang said. "Each week they would provide our camp with rice, charcoal and vegetables." Chang's youngest brother was born in the camp.

In February of 1980, the family was notified of their acceptance to the United States. "We were fortunate to have American sponsors," Chang said. "They really took us on and helped us a lot. They took my mom grocery shopping and my brothers and I to the dentist--little things you don't know how to do in a new country." The family had little money, so Chang's father worked two jobs, and her mother had to work as well.

Chang began the first grade in the United States at age seven, calling the strange new world "a blur. I didn't know anything," she said, laughing. Her parents assisted her with math and science, but her lack of proficiency in English proved difficult "until the end of third grade, when I caught up. I was fortunate to come here at a young age." Apparently, Chang found much more than the ability to speak English in school--from the time her family moved to Stone Mountain in 1985 Chang became an excellent student, and in 1991 she graduated as valedictorian of her class. At that point, she came to Emory for her undergraduate education, majoring in psychology. After she graduated, she was awarded a coveted Woodruff Scholarship, which covers tuition and fees at Emory Law School.

Chang's decision to attend law school stemmed directly from her own experiences in addition to her work with Amnesty International and the Georgia Childcare Council. "Low-income children need sponsors ... those organizations opened my eyes to what individual citizens can do to change their country and make kids' lives better."

"A big factor in my decision was the lack of minorities in the legal profession. I realized that there are very few Asian and minority lawyers," Chang said. "I've never met an Asian lawyer. When I look back at the community I was raised in, there are lots of people who want legal advice, but no one who can help them."

When she envisions her future, Chang sees herself volunteering in legal clinics to give advice, as well as assisting with the establishment of American businesses in developing countries. "There's such a low standard of living--things considered necessities here are often luxuries there," Chang said. "There are a lot of places where American businesses could contribute and flourish."

Until she can work to this end, Chang foresees working in a law firm for several years and possible government work. Her options are many, and Chang thanks her family for most of them. "My livelihood would be so different in Laos--I'd probably be barefoot and pregnant," she said. "My parents never told me what I couldn't do. When I was young, I told my dad I wanted to be president of the United States. He never told me to rest my ambitions because of the way things are in the world -- my parents taught me not to lower my standards."

-- Danielle Service