From Camps to Campus
Vietnamese alums reunite, share stories of their transition from refugee to Calvin student in the 1970s
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

One of the first things that (Wayne) Hung ex’76 remembers about his arrival at Calvin in 1975 was that his sponsoring family prayed a lot. “They thanked God for the sunshine; I thought that was strange. But I soon found out why,” he said with a laugh.

Marc and Claudia Beversluis, Hoang (standing) and Hung
Marc and Claudia Beversluis were instrumental in getting Hoang (standing) and Hung to Calvin.

Weather wasn’t the only thing Hung and 12 other classmates needed to adjust to, though.

“Everything was strange to me,” said Kim Huyen ’79, “the language, the weather, the school — all of it.”

It was foreign, in fact, to 13 young people transferred from Vietnamese refugee camps located across the United States to Calvin College, most leaving all family, friends and possessions behind.

“It was very difficult,” Hung said. “It was a very uncertain time for us. I was scared to be alone, and my language capability was a big handicap at that time.”

Having fled his home in April 1975, Hung came via airplane from Saigon to Guam and later to the United States, where he was transported to Fort Chaffee, an American military base in Arkansas repurposed as a Vietnamese refugee camp.

“I didn’t know what my future would be. I was very nervous and anxious, but fortunately, I realized that education would be the key to opening doors in America.”— Wayne Hung

Hung spent four months in the camp. “We had a lot of mixed feelings then,” he said. “People around us had lost relatives, their homes. I was confused; I didn’t know what my future would be. I was very nervous and anxious, but fortunately, I realized that education would be the key to opening doors in America.”

That education started by learning basic English in the camp. One of his teachers was Claudia DeVries (now Beversluis), a recent Calvin College graduate, who had volunteered her summer to teach English to the refugees.

“The story of the fall of Vietnam was all over the news,” said Beversluis, now Calvin’s dean for instruction and provost-elect. “People all over the country were stepping up to help out, sponsoring families, whatever they could do.”

So through the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), Beversluis was assigned to the Arkansas camp. Her future husband, Marc ’75, was working in resettlement with CRWRC at the time.

Vietnamese students at Calvin in 1975
Claudia Beversluis (back left) with Vietnamese students at Calvin in 1975

“It was an overwhelming experience,” she said. “I remember driving in and seeing the big, white barracks filled with families. Each family would have a couple of beds, with sheets as curtains hanging down as their walls. I remember hearing a lot of crying coming from the barracks at night. They were very disoriented and had no idea where they were going to go.”

But they were very eager to learn English, she recalled.

Such was the case for Kim Huyen ’79, who arrived at Fort Chaffee after spending a month on a boat, first to Guam and then on to the United States.

“I met Claudia and Marc, and we became friends,” she said. “I remember Claudia asked me, ‘What is your dream?’ I told her, ‘At home I was a first-year medical student, but I see no way that I can do that here.’”

It was exchanges like this one that got Beversluis thinking about what could be done. “Colleges all over the country were taking refugees in,” she said, “so we started thinking, ‘Why not Calvin?’”

William Spoelhof, who was Calvin’s president at the time, recalled the administration agreeing to admit the students without charging tuition. “Because of the situation, it seemed like the thing to do at the time,” he said.

The students were partially supported by the Christian Reformed Church and federal grants.

“Looking back, I am very grateful to Calvin,” Beversluis said. “It didn’t seem like a big thing back them. But when I think about the administration agreeing to take in 13 additional students in late August with no guarantee of any tuition dollars, what a great thing it was for Calvin to do.”

So it was that 13 students — 10 from Fort Chaffee and three from Camp Indiantown Gap, Harrisburg, Pa. — made their way to Calvin.

“I took the admission test, but I failed because I didn’t know enough English,” Huyen said. “My parents made me go. They said I was very lucky that I could get selected.”

Hung also struggled with the language, especially after first arriving at Calvin. “The lectures were very difficult for us,” he said. “Usually we would tape the lectures and then listen to them back in our rooms.”

Hearing professors lecturing all evening was a bit trying on the roommates, however. So trying in fact, that Hung’s roommate, Brent Hoitenga ’79, bought Hung a pair of headphones.

“Hung was so disciplined; he studied all the time,” Hoitenga recalled. “He was mad when he got Cs and Ds in English. I remember him saying, ‘That’s no good; I get As at home.’ I knew he was going to make something of himself; he was very intelligent.”

Calvin accommodated the students by offering a special English as a Second Language course and a mathematics course that incorporated teaching the students English mathematical vocabulary.

Ken Piers and Kim Huyen
Professor Ken Piers visits with Kim Huyen

“I always felt like my teachers paid special attention to me because I didn’t know English,” Huyen said. “I will never forget my chemistry professor Ken Piers. I was always behind on exams, and he would let me sit there all day long. One time I sat there for eight hours taking an exam. The professors really helped us out. I never flunked at any class; that is really amazing.”

The students were also aided by other Calvin students, who helped the students learn conversational English.

“One time I was asked, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ and I answered, ‘Yes, I have eight.’ One of my friends quickly taught me the difference between a male friend and a boyfriend. I never made that mistake again,” laughed Huyen.

Hung said he learned a great deal from Hoitenga. “I remember I asked him, ‘How do I know the difference between a girl’s name and a boy’s name?’ We weren’t familiar with that.”

The Hoitenga family also welcomed Hung to their home for his first Thanksgiving. “While I was there, they also celebrated his little sister’s birthday. This was my first experience with a birthday party, so they all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, even though it wasn’t my birthday. It was touching.”

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Learn more about Calvin's English Study Program, a four-week summer program international students to experience American culture and improve their English skills

Calvin offers a major in Asian Studies.

Adjusting to American culture was one thing; adjusting to the weather was something else.

“My roommate was from South Dakota,” said Hoang Nguyen ex’78, who was picked up by an American warship and brought to the United States in 1975. “He slept with the window open, and I slept far away from the window. It was so cold. We were really cold, but we had good times. The most beautiful time of our life is our college time.”

Like the others, (Nguyen) Hoang was sponsored by Calvin alumni. “Bernie [’66] and Ruth [Apol] Mulder [’66] were wonderful to me,” he said. “I really appreciate the big heart from everybody at Calvin — the sponsors, the professors, the students.”

Jim ’51 and Angie Droge Bosscher ex’45 sponsored Hung, and they continue to be like family. “I still call them mom and dad,” he said.

“We ‘quasi-adopted’ Hung,” said Jim Bosscher, engineering professor emeritus. “He is still like one of our own kids.”

Hung majored in engineering. He transferred to the University of Michigan after just one year, as he had already studied engineering for three years in Vietnam and Calvin didn’t offer an engineering major in the 1970s.

“I didn’t even realize how much I was influenced by Calvin until later,” Hung said. “I grew up Buddhist, but was missing the people, the Christian community of Calvin many years later.”

After completing his doctoral degree at University of California at Berkeley, Hung initially returned to Asia to work and help the underprivileged there. “Many times I searched for a Christian Reformed Church in Asia,” he said. “It took me a year to find one.”

After 12 years he returned to the United States, first teaching at San Diego State and now at Texas A&M University, where his research specialty is nanotechnology.

Like Hung, Hoang majored in engineering and eventually completed his degree at the University of Michigan.

He now works for Dallas Semiconductor in Texas as an engineering manager. “I don’t know what I would be now without Calvin,” Hoang said.

Huyen graduated from Calvin and became a cosmetic chemist. She now works part time in California as a consultant for companies such as Redken, Neutrogena, and Johnson and Johnson.

Vietnamese alumni and their mentors
Calvin Vietnamese alumni met other alumni and friends who were their mentors at a reunion in Grand Rapids

Others from the group live in Oklahoma and Virginia.

Seven of the original group of 13 and two other former refugee alums, who entered Calvin a semester later, gathered last July for a 30-year reunion of their arrival at Calvin. Here they met up with sponsors, Spoelhof and Calvin President Gaylen Byker to recollect their experience at Calvin.

While on campus, the alums presented Calvin with a donation of $3,000 to purchase library books to support the college’s Asian studies program.

“I really appreciate Calvin and the sponsors’ help,” Huyen said. “Calvin taught me how to love and how to give. It’s really important, and I don’t see many colleges around here that do that.”

— Lynn Rosendale is the managing editor of Spark

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Calvin English professor Don Hettinga ’76 also volunteered to teach English to refugees in the summer of 1975. He was assigned to Fort Indiantown Gap in Harrisburg, Pa. Read "Call Us Refugees," an article he wrote about his experience.