Months after the University of Southern California became embroiled in an admissions scandal, the school’s valedictorian didn’t shy away from what she saw as the university’s shortcomings in her message to the Class of 2019.
“I’ve seen great progress at USC since my freshman year, and now it’s certainly groundbreaking that, for the first time in the 139 years since its founding, women are leading the university,” Ivana Giang said to the more than 19,000 graduates and an estimated 60,000 others at the May 10 ceremony. “But breaking ground isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to find new people to cycle through the same old system. We have to reimagine a fundamental, cultural shift of these systems. Here at USC, we have been told to fight on all these years, but I have to ask USC: What are we fighting for?”
There was more to the speech than the audience may have realized, said Viet Thanh Nguyen, a USC professor and the Pulitzer-prize winning author of “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen, who worked with Giang on the address, said university communications officers felt some parts were “too pointed, politically.”
“Anyone who watches her speech might think it’s a very good speech and everything, but they don’t realize she had to struggle to be allowed to say these kinds of things,” Nguyen said. “It’s hard to do that when you are 21 and the university administration is telling you not to say these things.”
Giang was the school’s first diversity officer in the undergraduate student government diversity officer. She helped create the position because “the university’s efforts to increase diversity and inclusion weren’t quite meeting the mark,” she noted in her speech. She also addressed the unequal access given to women and minority communities for education and self-expression, “around the globe and right here on this campus.”
In a written statement, USC said its staff provides guidance for various commencement speakers, regarding “the time allotment, role for each speaker and the audience of students graduating and their families, but the speakers’ remarks are their determination.”
Giang also mentioned in her speech her appreciation for her family history, as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who settled in Ohio. Some of that discovery was fueled by Nguyen’s course, the American War in Vietnam, which she took during her senior year. The class helped open up conversations with her family members about their past, which they avoided discussing as they forged a life in Ohio, including her grandfather’s service as a colonel in the South Vietnamese army and 10 years as a prisoner of war.
“I’m working every day to understand how much it took for you to build your lives after the American war in Vietnam and then be forced to rebuild your lives here in America as refugees,” she said tearfully in front of her fellow graduates.
Nguyen was her first Vietnamese American professor, an experience she “would have never imagined in my wildest dreams.” Nguyen said he had a similar experience being taught about the history of Southeast Asia by a Vietnamese American professor when he was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley.
“There is something important to seeing yourself reflected in your professors,” he said. “I think, if you come from the majority, if you’re white or if you’re male, you take these things for granted. But if you’re not, it’s an enormous issue to see that people like you are doing these kinds of things, and in particular, if they are doing something that is important to yourself.”
Giang, who is 22 with bachelor’s degrees in public policy and global studies, will leave for Vietnam in September to teach as part of the Princeton in Asia program. It will be her first time in the country that her father fled by boat at 15, she said.
She hopes to also earn a master’s degree in public policy and return to academia in a teaching role. The Washington Post spoke to her about the power of representation in the classroom, her valedictorian speech and growing up Asian American in Ohio. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: What can you tell me about Nguyen’s class, the American War in Vietnam?
Giang: In the first grade, I remember that we were talking about the Vietnam War. My teacher asked if anybody’s grandparents or parents were veterans of the war. I had my hand halfway up and half down and hesitating because obviously my grandpa being in the South [Vietnam] war wasn’t the same thing as their grandparents or parents being drafted into the war as Americans. I had no idea what that meant.
Then we watched a video about the Vietnam War memorial and talked about the names inscribed on it. I raised my hand and had a question: Is my grandpa’s name on that wall? And the teacher looked at me and said, “I don’t think it is.” I was really sad and confused. For a 6-year-old, I had no idea what was going on. It felt like other kids’ parents were special somehow, and my grandpa wasn’t. I didn’t get that.
On the first day of the lecture in Professor Nguyen’s class, we were talking about memory and what it meant for people to actually go to the memorial. We were talking about whose memories are erased when we memorialize. In the act of remembering, we are also actively forgetting.
Tears were just streaming down my face. I’m sure the freshmen around me were quite confused. It explained how I felt 15 years ago, why I was so sad that my grandpa’s name wasn’t [on the memorial], and I felt like being in this class would have more than just that answer for me.
You said taking the class was “incredibly powerful.” What do you mean?
Any time I heard him pronounce a Vietnamese city or a memorial the right way, that meant something to me. Even just having a Vietnamese professor for the first time in my life, that was incredible. Having him at the forefront of the class and watching documentaries where it was Vietnamese language and there were subtitles in English that I didn’t always need. That felt powerful.
Have you talked to your family members about the class? Do you talk to them about their time in Vietnam?
I remember we were driving and my mom would be talking to me about how she would get to visit her dad once a year. So they would cook a huge, special meal, and they would have to walk an hour to get to where he was. And they would get to visit him during that time, and that was it, during the 10 years that he was a prisoner of war. We were coming back from the mall, and it was the summer, and I just wanted to hang out with my friends, and I was probably on my phone. I look back on moments like those and kick myself.
I never asked for those stories on my own while I was in high school. And driving to the airport with my dad a few days ago, I started asking a little bit more. I think they know that I’m curious, and we’re trying to figure out how to reach that level of emotional vulnerability with each other that we just have had to sort of cast away and bottle up until this point because, honestly, we were just trying to make it out here in Ohio with my parents trying to make ends meet and me and my brother trying to get through school.
I tried to talk to my family a bit about the class, but I think there’s still this wall that I have up, that I think my whole family has up, about just trying to move forward, and looking back is really scary for all of us. But I want to do that. And I’ve started telling them, here’s this professor and here’s some things he’s written. I took careful notes, because I intend to have this conversation with my family. I have to figure out how to talk about the ethics of remembering others in a way that I can talk to my mom about it. Some day, and this would be the dream, if I could come back from Vietnam and talk to my grandmas about it in Vietnamese.
Can you tell me about being USC’s valedictorian and your speech?
I’m very honored to represent the [Vietnamese American] community, but I was more so feeling the honor of being able to represent my story onstage. I knew there was a lot I had to consider with who I wanted to speak to, but I knew that, in the way that Professor Nguyen’s class was very universal, that if I told my story it would resonate with other people regardless of how specific and how little the Vietnamese American community was at USC.
I thought it was fairly timely I was chosen to give this speech after this year of tumultuous scandal after scandal for the university. Professor Nguyen said it nicely: It’s just a boring speech unless you ruffle some feathers. I wanted to make sure that people think about the real things that happened throughout the year.
I had two people assist me from the cultural relations/communications side of the university, that were like, “We’re here to make everybody look good.” I just found it increasingly interesting that they first said, “We’re not going to censor you,” but as each meeting went on, it was like, “Oh, I don’t know if you want to phrase things this way. Who’s your audience?” I think they were right on some things, but I wanted to hold my ground on a lot of other things.
What was it like growing up in Ohio?
My only memory growing up was surrounded by people who didn’t look like me, and I was just trying my best to fit in. And it’s cliche, but having to translate with cashiers and servers if I was just with my mom. If my dad was there, he would just order for my mom, which I didn’t think was weird until I got older. My mom isn’t a shy woman either, but she’s just very conscious of her language. And she’s like, “If me and my sisters weren’t so limited by our English, we’d be so much more powerful and rich.” She jokes about it. I know that to be true. The women in my family, especially on my mom’s side are powerful and it was hard for me to grow up seeing the times when the cashier would just look at me. I would get used to having to translate or jump in. My mom would get into disputes about coupons when we went shopping. She had this very particular way she wants to go about the world, and the world in Ohio wasn’t ready for that.
And taking food to school, that was the classic one. My mom, she would know — you can’t take this to school, this fried rice. Or this leftover dinner that we had. And I’m like, “I want ramen for lunch. Why can’t I take it?” And she’s like, “That’s not what the other kids are taking.” Like, it’s going to smell and going to be bad, and I would never do that.
Whenever my friends came over, my parents would hide all the things we were pickling and all the weird things we had in the fridge. I was like, “They’re just kids.” And my parents were scared about their reactions. I think we grew out of that a little bit, as Asian and Vietnamese food became more popular.
I have a question from Nguyen: Do you think you and your generation can change the world?
Coming into college and getting involved was a really inspiring thing. Anything can happen; we can do anything. Being on a college campus is an isolated experience of student activism. I wish I wasn’t going to say this, but I have become a little more jaded in my four years at school.
To answer your question, I feel like it won’t just be one generation. I feel like our generation will definitely make a mark, like seeing the high school kids get politically involved. In high school, we didn’t think about politics at all. But high school friends and I went back to see graduation for my brother last year. The valedictorian speech was very political, very pointed, and [my friend] texted me jokingly, “They’re evolving.” Seeing the Parkland kids get involved in gun control advocacy after what happened at their school and just seeing the kids get younger and younger that are getting involved — I sound so old saying that; I’m one of those kids I guess. I feel like we are progressing, but I don’t know whether it is our specific generation.