This article first appeared in the summer 2017 Harker Magazine.
By Vikki Bowes-Mok
While in high school, Elyse VyVy Trinh ’07 attended a Vietnamese Catholic youth group where she heard a priest talk about human trafficking. It lit a fire in Trinh, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, and fueled her desire to make a difference in the world.
“It really hit me that day,” remembered Trinh in a thoughtful, upbeat tone. “I had heard these stories before, but I felt like I was waking up.” Trinh later attended a leadership event that was packed with young people who wanted to change the world.
After the event, Trinh sent an email to two Harker administrators, saying that the school needed a revolution. She and a group of friends dedicated themselves to raising funds – ultimately, nearly $14,000 – to support displaced people in Darfur, Sudan. “It was like Dumbledore’s Army,” she said with a smile. “This was my earliest experience organizing a group of people and it felt so empowering. I realized this is what I want to do – this is what matters.”
While Trinh was becoming an activist, she also considered herself a writer and an artist. Although her family thought she would go into medicine, Trinh wasn’t convinced. But then two things happened that ultimately led her down that path.
First, she read “Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder, which gave her a new perspective on the role of a physician. The book is about Dr. Paul Farmer, whose passion, dedication and tireless efforts resulted in improved health care for the desperately poor in Haiti and beyond. She realized that following one’s calling can lead to a meaningful life.
Then John Near, a beloved Harker history teacher, got sick and Trinh watched helplessly, wishing here was something she could do. She began to see herself practicing medicine. After a four-year battle with cancer, Near died in 2009.
A family friend told her about a medical program at Brown University in Providence, R.I., that allowed students to explore their passions as undergraduates so that they would develop into well-rounded, humanistic doctors. She took a leap of faith that she could forge a connection between health, community and education.
“Brown’s true education to us will have been this lesson above all: that it is never foolish to feel love; that compassion is the enduring and most important connection among of all fields of study,” she said in a commencement speech at Brown in May 2011.
Trinh fell in love with education at Brown – and even took a year off between her third and fourth years of medical school to earn a master’s degree in education at Harvard University. For this she received a Zuckerman Fellowship, which enables students who have or are pursuing a professional degree to spend a year earning a public service degree.
Meanwhile, she nurtured her passions for social justice, community and education by volunteering with BRYTE (Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment), which works one-on-one with refugee youth in K-12. “I’d like to think I played some role in her success but, of course, I know she achieved all she has without my help,” said Brigid Miller, a Harker English teacher and Trinh’s high school advisor. “VyVy is a force, a magnetic personality whom others are drawn to. She’s a person you want to know forever; she’s my idol.”
She’s also an idol to the young refugees she has tutored and mentored through BRYTE (www. brownrefugeetutoring.weebly.com). Known as “BRYTE Grandma,” she co-directed the summer camp for years and still works as a tutor and advisor. “VyVy is [nicknamed] BRYTE Grandma because she loves our program and all the people in it! Whenever we are trying to contact a camper’s family, we call VyVy because she memorized all of the addresses and she always knows it,” said Mechack Ira, assistant director at BRYTE and former tutee and camper. “I will forever be grateful to VyVy for believing in me.”
As Trinh wraps up her time in Rhode Island and heads to California for her residency, she hasn’t slowed down a bit. In addition to working with BRYTE, she’s trying to connect Haitian peanut farms to global markets and working with young Vietnamese Americans to organize and stand with today’s refugees. Her LinkedIn profile ends with “Come dream and scheme with me!” capturing her mission to make a difference in the world.
Contributor Vikki Bowes-Mok is also the executive director of the community nonprofit Compass Collective.