Perilous Odyssey From Pain to Promise

It was nearly 5 p.m., quitting time, really, for many students at Cal State Fullerton. But there was Vitthara Tan, curled on a couch in the student government office, catching a nap between work, classes and his duties as student body president.

"Shssh," whispered the office secretary, nodding to the dozing senior.

That was all it took. Tan sat bolt upright and ready for his next appointment, to be followed by a round of meetings on how to inform students about the financial crisis looming for the state universities.

The 22-year-old business management major from Anaheim is driven.

"My ultimate dream is to be a CEO of a major company," Tan said. "My other ultimate dream is to be president of Cambodia some day."

The future did not always seem so bright.

Tan was 6 when his well-to-do family was banished to a remote jungle village by the Khmer Rouge, ruthless revolutionaries who had taken over Cambodia. His father had been a justice of the Cambodian high court. His mother, one of the few professional women in the nation, was director of a bank.

He would soon come to know a very different childhood of forced labor in the fields, without school and with little food.

Tan still recalls waking up one night and seeing that his father had disappeared. Villagers told his mother that "those people," meaning the Khmer Rouge, had taken him away.

"My mom kept giving money and medicine to the village chief to give to my father. It was a touching moment when they told her to stop wasting her time because her husband had died already. It was devastating, really."

When the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia a few years later, Tan and his family fled to Thailand. They were soon sent back on a forced march through a mountainous region scattered with land mines.

"Sometimes, when somebody got out of step, they got blown up," Tan said. "I was always wondering whether my next step would be my last step."

They tried to escape, and ended up in a Thai refugee camp staffed by international relief workers who helped them apply to join cousins in the United States.

Their five-year odyssey of starvation and forced labor ended in April, 1980, when the family flew into Los Angeles.

"I was in awe at the lights," said Tan, smiling at the memory. "In Cambodia, we always dreamed about America. Never before did I see so many lights, so many buildings, so many cars. . . . It was nighttime; it was like in a dream."

At age 11, able only to count and speak a little French, Tan went to Olita Elementary School in La Habra, where schoolmates eased his transition.

"At recess, 10 boys surrounded me and 10 girls got around my sister. They taught us words like drink by showing us how to use the drinking fountain," he said. "They were the nicest people. Especially their parents. They started me in Cub Scouts and helped pay for my uniform. I really love and appreciate those people."

Tan, who will receive his bachelor's degree this month from Cal State Fullerton, has one overriding philosophy: "My mom has this belief that if you do good things for other people, you will get good things back. That is my belief too."

Yet he also is driven to be the best: "Whatever I do, I want to be at the top of my field."

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