Kentwood art teacher draws on experience as refugee to guide students

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KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — A West Michigan teacher has won both the Michigan Art Educator of the Year and top honors at the national level.

Le Tran teaches at her students at East Kentwood High School about more than just art: She helps them find their passion, something her teachers did for her when she first moved to the United States from Vietnam in 1975.

Tran was 10 years old when Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in 1975. She and her family heard on the radio that a tanker had plowed down the presidential palace gate, so they ran to their boat to take off to sea. In the chaos, they were separated. Tran’s mother and two siblings were stuck in the city, so her father and the other six children had to leave without them. It would be 10 years before Tran’s mother, brother and sister finally reunited with the family.

An American naval ship picked Tran, her father and siblings up and took them to a refugee camp in Guam. After two months, they were transferred to Fort Indiantown Gap refugee camp in Pennsylvania. That’s where they met a college student who found a church to sponsor them and bring them to Grand Rapids.

Tran said her family was amazed at the kindness of strangers who provided a home, food and clothing.

“We were just so amazed that strangers would take us in and prepared everything for us so we could start our new lives,” she said.

Her teachers were also a huge part of her life, especially art teachers who recognized her talent and encouraged her to pursue it through high school and college.

After raising her three daughters, Tran took on the role of teacher herself and has spent the last 20 years helping her students develop their skills.

East Kentwood High School art teacher Le Tran. (May 2021)

Tran is also the advisor to the school’s Asian Student Union and encourages the teens to celebrate their heritage. She said recent cases of discrimination against members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community around the country has forced her to relive ugly lessons she learned when she was a 10-year-old girl new to America.

“Not a day goes by when me and my peers weren’t called names and bullied and humiliated and mocked,” she recalled. “That happened for a few years and was pretty painful. And that stirred up in my head again when all of this happened.”

Tran said old wounds have opened up. She wants her students to know that the way to heal is to focus on the broader picture and discover the way the textures of everyone they know weave together to create a beautiful piece of art.

“We are made up of so many different people that have chosen America to settle,” Tran said. “That’s the strength of America, that’s the beauty of America. Why choose hate when you can choose love?”

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