Lesley Ta knows a bit about the land her family emigrated from before she was born, but her parents seldom look back on their refugee experiences, so she is eager to learn more about Vietnam from a semester-long service-learning course that will culminate in a winter trip to a nation still evolving 40 years after its civil war ended.

Since 2007 Suffolk University students have been going on Alternative Winter Break service trips to El Salvador, where they learn about the country’s history and participate in community service projects. This winter the Alternative Winter Break program also will be offering students a service trip to Vietnam, where, after taking the semester-long course “Reconciliation and Conflict,” they will take part in a Habitat for Humanity service project.

“There are a lot of parallels between the history of El Salvador and Vietnam,” said Carolina Garcia, director of Suffolk’s Center for Community Engagement. “Professor Roberto Dominguez, who teaches ‘Reconciliation and Conflict,’ thought the history of Vietnam would be an interesting addition to the class, which covers how countries come together after a major armed conflict.”

Parents born in Vietnam

Ta, a rising Sawyer Business School sophomore who was born in Boston, is the student leader for the Vietnam trip. Although Ta’s family is ethnically Chinese, both of her parents were born and grew up in Vietnam.

“At 17 years old, my father had to leave Vietnam, leaving behind his parents and his little brother,” said Ta. “He escaped by boat and then spent a year living in a refugee camp in the jungles of Malaysia before coming to the United States. The war orphaned my mother at a young age, and she escaped to Hong Kong with her grandmother.”

Consequences of war

Ta, 19, said that when her father was her age, “he worked three jobs to ensure that my grandparents and my uncle would be brought over to the United States.”

“It was always their intention to raise me as an American rather than have me consistently identify as a child of refugees,” Ta says, so although “I have some knowledge of my family's history in Vietnam, it’s not something that comes up in daily conversation.” Ta’s parents have never returned to Vietnam since emigrating to the United States.

Beyond taking the opportunity to improve a Vietnamese family’s living conditions and to gain insight on the consequences of war, Ta says she looks forward to traveling to Vietnam on behalf of her family, “because they need to know that Vietnam is in the process of rehabilitation,” information that Ta will be able to relay first-hand.