Family portrait of Connie Nguyen-Truong with father, mother, kids, husband.
Dr. Connie Nguyen-Truong (center), with (l-r), her father, John Nguyen, son Liam, husband Anthony Truong, daughter Mila, and mother Trang Nguyen. Courtesy photo.

Dr. Connie Nguyen-Truong’s parents arrived in America in the 1970s as refugees from Vietnam.

Between them, they spoke two words of English – “hi,” and “thank you.” 

But the couple got help navigating their new language and culture from a Portland nonprofit, the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization, or IRCO. As they settled in, they began volunteering at IRCO to help other refugee families, driven by their personal philosophy of leaving no one behind, said Nguyen-Truong, an assistant professor at the WSU College of Nursing in Vancouver.

It’s a worldview Nguyen-Truong shares, one that drives much of her academic and volunteer work. That, plus her lifelong connection with IRCO, resulted in her being honored as the 2017 Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization Success Story.

She joked that she “first engaged with IRCO in utero,” because its staff helped her mother with prenatal care when she was pregnant with Nguyen-Truong, the oldest of three children. Later she worked there as a health educator and research assistant while pursuing her doctorate in nursing at Oregon Health Sciences University. Now she serves on IRCO’s board, and on the board of a related organization, the Asian Family Center.

“IRCO was founded by refugees for refugees,” she said. “It has over 250 programs, and it’s well-run and purely grant-driven. I’m really honored to be recognized by IRCO.”

At the WSU College of Nursing, one of her primary research interests is reducing health disparities and improving health equity for Asian Americans, immigrants and minorities.

“My parents wanted to give back because of what was given to them,” Nguyen-Truong said. “I was inspired by their volunteerism and leadership, and I wanted to help our people, too.”

Nguyen-Truong said her father, John Nguyen, worked alongside U.S. forces in Vietnam during the war, and had to flee the country with only what he could carry when America withdrew. Her mother, Trang Nguyen, came from North Vietnam, and the couple met and married in refugee camps. Once in Portland, her father worked two jobs while attending school full-time to become an engineer.

Historic photo of Vietnamese couple being married in a refugee camp in California.
Connie Nguyen-Truong’s parents’ wedding took place in a refugee camp in California in the mid-1970s.

“Inside our house, it was Vietnam,” Nguyen-Truong recalled of her childhood. “Once I stepped outside, that was America. It was challenging in terms of navigating different cultural expectations.”

She was drawn to nursing in high school after her mother became seriously ill. But first she had to persuade her parents, she said, because “Nursing here in the U.S. is different from the perception of nursing my parents remembered in Vietnam.”

Nguyen-Truong was the first woman in her family line to graduate from high school, the first to graduate from college, and the first to get a Ph.D.

She married Anthony Truong, a pharmacist, and the couple has twins who are nearly 4 years old.

Nguyen-Truong credits strong role models, family support, plus internal focus and optimism for her successful, nearly two-decade career in nursing and academia. “I’m honored to serve, including where it all began,” she said, “here at IRCO.”

–Story by Addy Hatch