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Graduating UCR Student Endured Danger, Hardships to Complete Education in U.S.

Graduating UCR Student Endured Danger, Hardships to Complete Education in U.S.

(June 15, 1999)

For 37-year-old Thang Dam, the path to college was a harrowing journey that began 20 years ago with the first of seven attempts to escape communist-controlled Vietnam.

This Saturday, Dam will receive his bachelor's degree in environmental engineering from the University of California, Riverside during commencement ceremonies scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on the Commons Mall. And, he does so having already been accepted for g raduate studies in automotive engineering at the University of Tennessee, one of about 10 universities in the nation supported by the U.S. Department of Energy's Graduate Automotive Technology Education program.

"Thang is one of the most dedicated and hard working students we have ever had," said Joe Norbeck, director of the College of Engineering-Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) and Dam's academic advisor. "He has overcome so many hard ships with his work ethic. In the process, he has developed a genuine affection for the faculty and students, which is mutual. He sets a wonderful example for all of us." "To overcome my obstacles, I needed to work very hard," said Dam, now living in Riverside. "But if you have the will, you will get it." At an age where most scientists are entering the middle part of their careers, Thang is just now finishing his undergraduate studies.

Before coming to the U.S. in 1989 -- he arrived at San Francisco International Airport just an hour before the destructive Loma Prieta earthquake -- Dam spent a decade trying to leave Vietnam. During that time, he was imprisoned repeatedly for a total of five years. Dam said he risked his life to escape because he was not allowed to pursue his dream of higher education and because his family was being discriminated against, in part because his father had been an officer in the South Vietnamese military.

His first incarceration was in 1979, when he was placed in one of the labor camps the North Vietnamese established after the Vietnam War.

He soon escaped with some members of his family and friends and they constructed a small boat to leave the country. Caught in a severe storm that destroyed the vessel, the group managed to swim to an island south of Vietnam. After about two months, they were captured and Dam was sent to prison. Several times he escaped, hiding in the countryside, taking odd jobs in exchange for food and using false identification to move around the country undetected. Each time he was recaptured.

Finally, late in 1987, Dam made his way to the Cambodian border, where he obtained passage to Thailand and lived in a refugee camp for 1-1/2 years. It was there he was interviewed by a U.S. delegation and granted asylum. He then spent six months living in the Philippines to learn some English before traveling to the U.S.

After working a few years in the bee removal industry -- beekeeping was one of the few job skills he brought from Vietnam -- Dam got a yearning to return to school. "I didn't have a chance to study for 15 years," he said. Dam was interesting in learning about the science behind his profession and heard UCR has renowned programs in entomology and toxicology. He started at UCR in 1995 as a biochemistry major, but changed majors to engineering after learning about CE-CERT and its work to develop automotive technologies that are less polluting.

In May, he won the 49th annual Mac Short Engineering Paper Competition sponsored by the Southern California section of the Society of Automotive Engineers. He engineered a device to overcome the technical problem of cold-starting alcohol-fueled engines, w hich typically perform poorly a low temperature. He outlined his design in a 20-minute oral presentation to a panel of industry experts gathered at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

He was also a three-year member of Team CE-CERT, the student organization that competes in national collegiate competitions to develop alternative fueled vehicles. Dam, now a U.S. citizen, said he grateful for the support of his college friends and professors in earning his degree. He now plans to pursue the development of cleaner, more fuel-efficient automobiles. "I love automotive technology. I want to focus on hybrid electric vehicle development."

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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