San Luong O, AM '84
Director of Programs, South-East Asia Center, Chicago
“I think that one of the most important things I got from my education at SSA was the spirit of helping people,” says San Luong O, a refugee from Vietnam who has taken service to the Asian community in Chicago to new heights. “I came here to the United States at the end of the Vietnam War, and from the very beginning I was helped and treated with respect. To this day, I still find it unbelievable that so many people helped me get to where I am now.”
Ms. Luong O received her bachelor’s degree in English and linguistics in 1974 from Saigon University, and then went to work for the Saigon school system. “I taught foreign languages in the high schools, and just before I left, I was principal of an elementary school. I was asked to be a translator for some Americans who were in Vietnam with an international agency working on a refugee project in Saigon. When the project was finished, they asked me if I wanted to come to the United States and I said yes, but only if my brother could come with me.”
Leaving Vietnam proved to be perilous as Ms. Luong O and her brother had to spend days and nights at the airport waiting for a plane out of Saigon. “We got out hours before the Communists took over and bombed the airport. I will never forget the feeling of relief when we landed in New York City. People were wonderful. They met us at the airport, helped us get through customs, and took us to a place to stay temporarily. This was also the first time that I heard about this profession called social work.”
“Within a short time I had a more permanent place to stay, an English tutor, and a job in an office where it took me a year to learn how to answer the telephone, file, and type.” Ms. Luong O knew that she needed further education, and, with help, was accepted at Columbia University. While her degree from Saigon University was recognized, Ms. Luong O could not get into a master’s program until she completed a bachelor’s degree from Columbia. “I met a lot of challenges at Columbia, mainly cultural, in the Eastern way versus the Western way. While I went to school I also worked at a Jewish organization that helped settle refugees, and that is where I knew that I wanted to be a social worker.”
After graduating from Columbia in 1980, friends in Chicago offered her a job with Asian Human Services. “When I came to Chicago, the agency told me that I should right away apply for a master’s program, and they suggested SSA as the best. My time at SSA was special as everyone was very supportive. I thought of my professors as my family and even named some of them as aunts and uncles. A special one was Professor Pollak (William Pollak, Ph.D.), who gave me extra time to understand statistics. The students became like cousins to me.” Ms. Luong O received her master’s from SSA in 1984.
While at the School, Ms. Luong O became involved with a community group helping Asian refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. “I was the only one then who could speak and understand some English, and I helped the group organize and incorporate into the Association of Chinese from Indochina. When I wasn’t going to school and studying, I was helping the association. Because no one had family here, we tried to create a family atmosphere for the refugees and that is why so many volunteer in our programs to this day.”
The association became the South- East Asia Center and the group moved to a new building with more space. Ms. Luong O became the director of programs and began to shape the organization into what it has become today - a viable, active community center serving various Asian constituencies. “From my SSA education, I knew how to organize and get our refugees settled.”
“SSA taught me how to see a whole picture and not just the many parts. That is why I worked so hard to make the center a place to provide comprehensive family services.” Today, the center offers childcare services, including preschool and aftercare, adult and senior programs, financial advice, immigration and citizenship classes, substance abuse programs, and more. “Asians are very proud and will not openly tell you that something is wrong. We are a one-stop program. We see a need and we do it.”
Ms. Luong O has a long history of community involvement beyond the center. She has been a member of Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s Asian American Advisory Council, Secretary of State Jesse White’s Asian American Advisory Council, and State’s Attorney Richard Devine’s Asian American Advisory Council. She also serves on the board of the Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly and as a member of the Coalition for a Better Chinatown.
In recognition of her many accomplishments, she has been inducted into the City of Chicago Women’s Hall of Fame and honored by the Chicago Commission on Human Relations.