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Hardship Ruled, but This Grad Stayed on Course

UCI student kept her goal in sight despite neglect and abandonment.

May 29, 2004|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

Tiffany Chung almost flunked out of UC Irvine. That was the least of her problems.

One of three daughters of unmarried Vietnamese immigrants, she was abandoned by both. She bounced from relative to relative, attended 13 schools, received welfare, was a ward of the court, lived in a home for abused and neglected children and watched her sisters become mothers out of wedlock.

And through it all, Chung never lost focus of her goals.

On June 19 she will receive her bachelor's degree from UCI with a double major in sociology and social science with an emphasis on public and community service. Among the 4,700 graduates, her degree seems a particularly fitting cap to a struggle-filled journey.

"Look at the environment she came out of," said Joe Maextas, UCI's director of student academic advancement services. "With all of the [emotional] abuse and neglect in the family, this kid could have dropped by the wayside. But there's a spunk and a fire about her that says, 'That's not the way I want to be.' "

Sitting at an outdoor table at a campus cafe, ignoring the ringing of her cell phone, Chung tells her story.

"I look at the past and take away what I've learned from it, not what I've missed," said the 22-year-old.

When Chung was born, her 16-year-old mother and 22-year-old father already were the parents of a year-old daughter. A third would arrive in a year and a half.

When Chung was 5, her parents separated and her father drove the girls from Denver to Huntington Beach, where his family lived.

She didn't see her mother again for 14 years.

In short order, her father turned to the life of a gangster and handed the girls over to relatives, going months without seeing them.

The girls moved from one family member to another, an aunt here, an uncle there, attending schools in Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and Norwalk.

"It was like popcorn, we were bouncing around so much," Chung said.

She and her sisters lived mostly with their aunt, who operated a skin-care salon. When business slowed, she closed it to take care of the girls and went on welfare.

When her father found out, Chung said, he saw it as a way to support himself.

"It was a vicious cycle," Chung said. "Every time he found a new girlfriend, he would bring us to live with him because he needed that money. Then when he broke up, he would ask my aunt to take us back. It was a constant push and shove, push and shove."

When Chung was about 12, her father asked whether the girls wanted to live with him or his sister. The girls, tired of ever-changing schools and friends, chose their aunt.

Chung remembered his response: "I'm going to kill you. What kind of kids are you?"

Word of the threat reached their social worker, who placed the girls at Orangewood Children's Home in Orange, the county's shelter for abused children.

Throughout the girls' constant upheaval, relatives enforced the strict values of the old country. Backtalk was not accepted, and they answered adults with "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir."

Away from family for the first time, they found Orangewood to be a world of troubled kids toughened by family violence, even murder.

"The crying [among the sisters] never ceased," Chung said.

A few months later, the girls' aunt became their guardian, infuriating their father. He'd show up at the aunt's house and launch into such tirades that the aunt threatened to call the police.

In her senior year of high school, her father moved to Northern California -- the last time she would see him for seven years.

Despite the chaos, Chung graduated from Fountain Valley High School with honors and was accepted to UCI, becoming the first member of her extended family to attend a university.

But the struggles continued.

Chung's family wanted her to become a doctor, so she majored in biology. After a year and a half, she nearly flunked out and was placed on academic probation.

"I was devastated," Chung said. "How was I going to tell my family?"

After a year of classes at nearby Orange Coast College, she returned to UCI.

Never wanting to be a doctor -- and given her experience with the welfare system -- Chung decided to pursue a career in social work.

While attending classes, she worked with the Orangewood Children's Foundation, which supports the home where she had once lived, and at 19 was head of its peer mentor program.

Chung also became one of the first Orangewood Guardian Scholars at UCI, which provides $7,500 a year for former foster youths attending college or trade school.

"She is really amazing," said Mike McKenzie, the foundation's independent living program supervisor. "She's passionate about making things better for other people."

Two summers ago, Chung's life turned again when she attended a fellowship program in public policy and international relations at the University of Michigan. She decided to change people's lives, not as a social worker, but as an advocate for the poor.

While her academic life had settled down, turmoil still swirled around her family.

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