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From Vietnam to White Earth

WHITE EARTH - Long Nguyen says he is finally comfortable enough to tell his life story, and hopefully inspire others in the process.

"I look back and say 'My God, I did it,'" he said Monday from the White Earth Health Center. He is working with a two-week program as a dentist through the Indian Health Services program.

But his journey began long before his time in Minnesota. Nguyen was born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1974, the youngest of eight children.

"My family and I were the original boat people," he said.

His father was imprisoned from 1975-84 in what was called a retraining camp, but was a prison. To escape communism for a better life, Nguyen's mother saved money for her, Nguyen and his next oldest brother -- only two years older than him -- to travel to America. His remaining siblings stayed behind to care for their father.

They left by boat in August 1979. Along the way, pirates attacked their boat -- which was about the size of an 80-foot yacht that carried 90 people -- four times. After the first time, when the pirates had taken all the jewelry and possessions, Nguyen said the pirates would get angry and abuse the women instead.

A commercial fishing boat eventually spotted the boat Nguyen and his family was aboard, and took them to Taiwan. Sponsored by the United States Catholic Confederate, after months in Taiwan and health screening, they were brought to Dallas, Texas, in the early summer of 1980.

They applied for welfare and lived with food stamps, housing assistance and Nguyen's mother working two jobs. The brothers picked cans and recycled them to help with income also. Nguyen started first grade and his brother enrolled in third. They didn't speak a word of English though.

He said looking back, he remembers portions of the boat ride to the United States and what life was like once he was here.

"I know what it's like to be an outsider," he said -- and he remembers the fear.

"I still have a fear of water," Nguyen said.

He also remembers crying a lot, and his brother yelling at him to shut up. He remembers more of Texas.

He said it was hard, because they were different. Texas was populated with Mexicans, not Vietnamese. He remembers being in a lot of fights, not because he wanted to be, but because he was defending himself, especially against the school bus bully.

In 1983, one of his brothers came to Texas, in 1985 his father came to live with them, and in 1991, the remaining family members came. They were sponsored though, so they didn't have to travel over by boat.

During high school, Nguyen took interest in business and photography as possible college studies and careers. His mother urged him to pursue the medical field, but he said he had no interest at the time.

"It was important to make a foundation for myself and get an education," he said.

He decided to focus on business. He graduated from college in 1997, with a bachelor's degree. He worked five to six years for a big corporation and, "I decided this wasn't the job for me."

That's when he looked into dental school.

"I liked the idea of being my own boss, an entrepreneur," Nguyen said. He added that he liked the hours as well. "The flexibility fits my lifestyle."

Nguyen is now married with two children. "If I have a good foundation, that's a better future they can have," he said of his children.

Nguyen is a senior at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He said he saw fliers up around campus and heard a seminar on the Indian Health Service program and decided to take part.

"My goal was just to learn," he said.

He was placed at the White Earth Health Center and he said the experience has been "fantastic."

Partnering with the American Dental Association, college juniors are serving as dental assistants at the White Earth Health Center as well.

"There's so much we could do," Nguyen said of helping patients. "I actually see and understand the disparity here."

His decision to change careers was one he's still happy with. Not to mention his mom, who is proud of her son's career in medicine.

"Every day, the more I do, the more I'm reiterating that decision," he said of choosing dental school. "Sometimes I regret not going right out of high school though."

He added that people should understand he was never an "A" student and didn't care for science in high school.

"As long as you make an effort and be self-disciplined, you can get there," he said. "Don't let anyone discourage you."