Community college ties: NIC alum reconnects with former instructors

Going to college is not always easy. Beginning students are often caught up in a whirlwind of unfamiliarity—in a new place with new people and new responsibilities. However, everything was new to Peter (Bao) hong Truong when he enrolled in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho's North Idaho College in the mid-1970s, including the culture and the country. “I was frustrated, homesick, scared,” Truong said. Truong was raised in Saigon in an affluent family. He fled as a refugee to the United States in 1975 when the South Vietnamese government fell. He stayed in Spokane for awhile with the man who sponsored his immigration before moving in with another South Vietnam native living in Coeur d'Alene. He enrolled at NIC and began working full time as a dishwasher in a Coeur d'Alene restaurant just to make enough money to live. Truong had barely been out on his own before leaving Vietnam and had never had to support himself before. Being a full-time student and working full time in an alien place quickly took its toll on Truong. “It was very difficult for me,” Truong said. “I have no clue how I made it. I just went day by day.” But Truong did make it. He graduated from NIC in 1979 and said the school provided him the perfect atmosphere to adjust to both college and the customs of a different country. “I loved NIC,” Truong said. “It was a small school and perfect for me. The skills I learned there gave me what I needed to eventually own my own business.” Truong was touched by many lives during his time at NIC, but he also touched a few himself. Judy Sylte and her husband Jim McLeod, both retired NIC English instructors, taught Truong and have been inspired by his many contributions to the community over the years. “I've never forgotten him or the good talks we used to have about the challenges of being new to America and his dreams for the future,” Sylte said. “Talk about determination! He had an exceptional sense of gratitude to his adopted home and I used to tell him that over the years he would bring much to America too. Little did I know how much.” Sylte always wondered where life had taken Truong and oddly enough that answer came one day when she opened up the morning newspaper. She discovered that she and Truong were not oceans apart after all. After retiring from NIC, Sylte and McLeod moved to Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound area and slowly lost touch with Coeur d'Alene. However, the ties that bind people to NIC seem to remain long after they leave campus. Sylte was amazed to see that after all these years she was living so close to Truong and was ecstatic to see his name as a recipient of the prestigious Seattle Post-Intelligencer 2002 Jefferson Award, because to Sylte, no one was more deserving than Truong. “Peter's story goes to the heart of what community colleges are all about,” Sylte said. “The community invested its human and financial resources in Peter's future when he really needed them. Now Peter enriches the larger community many times over, in ways he may never even be aware of. The ripples just keep widening.” And the stone was dropped in the water in Coeur d'Alene. After graduating from NIC, Truong transferred to the University of Idaho and earned a degree in business management. He returned to Coeur d'Alene and opened Hong Kong Restaurant on the corner of 4th and Sherman downtown. Sylte still remembers many evenings out enjoying dinner at Truong's popular restaurant. But Truong refused to hard his prosperity and he immediately began doing his best to help others less fortunate than himself. He sponsored the resettlement of 21 Vietnamese family members living in United States refugee camps and at night he would open the doors of his restaurant and allow the homeless to escape the winter cold, have a meal and sleep inside for the night. Truong earned U.S. citizenship in 1980, married and decided to move to Seattle in 1988 with his wife, a school teacher from Lewiston, Idaho, and their two children. He now works as a community service officer for the King County Sheriff's Office and spends the rest of his time volunteering for a variety of different causes in his community. Truong volunteers for the Asian immigrant community, churches, a senior citizens center and various other community organizations and events. After Sept. 11, Truong organized a blood drive and raised $40,000 to benefit rescue workers and victims of the terrorist attacks. He also contributes a portion of his income to a charity he founded for homeless children in Vietnam. “In my book, Peter's is the truest kind of success story,” Sylte said. “Many folks come to college seeking academic and career achievements and financial security. These are all worthy goals and I relish seeing my former students achieve them. But to succeed first and foremost as a human being—to discover as Peter has that life's greatest rewards lie in service to others—blows all other accomplishments away.” Truong's service to his community both on the job and off earned him the 2002 Jefferson Award honoring him for his outstanding work to make a difference in the world. Truong was one of six recipients out of a pool of more than 200 nominees. Truong also earned the Meritorious Service Award from the King County Sheriff's Office this year for his service through incidents of family violence, specifically in two incidents when a father killed his 17-year-old daughter leaving an 8-year-old sibling and a separate incident involving a father who killed his wife and himself leaving three surviving children. “You provided significant translation services to Major Crimes and took it upon yourself to assist family members, including meeting on weekends, helping with long-term placement of the children, attending funerals and obtaining public assistance for another member of the family,” said King County Sheriff Dave Reichert in a letter to Truong notifying him of the award. “I can't believe all of this attention is for me,” Truong said. “I don't deserve all of this. I'm just a regular guy.” It's his humble nature in spite of his many accomplishments that Sylte said makes Truong extraordinary. “My heartfelt respect and admiration go out to Peter for his deeply generous spirit,” Sylte said. “I'm sure he can never know how many Americans both new and old he has inspired to become their best selves.”

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Posted: Friday, Aug. 6, 2004

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