Tou Vue was a tiny infant when his parents fled Laos as communist forces enacted revenge on the Hmong for supporting American troops. Now he’s a network engineer for the Lansing School District, running for Waverly Community School Board and raising a family. Photo by Roxanne Firth
Story by Ruelaine Stokes
Updated by TNCP Staff
Late on the night of June 2, 1979, a Hmong family slipped out the door and into the forest, heading south towards the Mekong River. The young father led the way, followed by his wife, carrying a tiny baby boy, only one month and 10 days old. Three boys and a girl hurried beside them. They could travel only at night so as not to be seen by the soldiers hunting the Hmong.
Now, 38 years later, that infant being carried to safety in his mother’s arms sits in his office at the Lansing School District and recounts that desperate night.
“They were carrying everything — food, me, one of my uncles, who was only 8 years old then,” explains Tou Vue, the network engineer of the district’s Technology Department. “He had to be carried a lot.”
In May of 1975, communist forces overran the headquarters of the CIA-supported army of Hmong General Vang Pao, who had been fighting in support of American troops for almost 15 years against the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao. The CIA helped Vang Pao and other Hmong leaders escape to the US. Then, the Laotian Army began to seek revenge.
“We were being chased down,” Tou says. “We had to get to the border of Laos and Thailand. We had to cross a big river to get to Thailand. A lot of people died trying to get across that river to the other side.”
In the years following, tens of thousands of Hmong fled Laos on foot, crossing the Mekong River into Thailand, heading to the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, ten miles south of the border.
“We arrived at Ban Vinai in late June of 1979,” Tou explains, showing the location of the camp on his smart phone. “We left the camp on June 24, 1980, heading for Flint, Michigan, where our original sponsors were.”
Life in the new country was not easy.
“There was a language barrier, a food barrier, cultural changes,” Tou says.
“I had three uncles and an aunt with us. Fortunately, my dad came upon a Laotian lady in church who was part of Refugee Services in the Flint area that sponsored us. Through her, he was able to find the rest of my uncles that lived in Lansing. Three days later, we moved to Lansing.”
From there, the family gradually began to adapt to the new environment and make progress in their new home. For Tou, school provided the path forward.
“It was a challenge going to school,” Tou says.
“My parents didn’t know how to speak English, but I was fortunate to have older uncles and older cousins that I was able to work along with. When I started going to school, they had an English as a second language program at Walnut School. Refugee children from all the different schools were going to Walnut because that’s where the ESL program was. I stopped the ESL program about 3rd grade, and then just did regular schooling. I graduated from Eastern High School in 1997.”
“The biggest challenges were getting adapted to the Westernized world and learning to handle any racial inequality that we encountered,” he remembers. “People were not aware who the Hmong were. When we arrived here, there were only 12 Hmong families.”
After graduating from Eastern, Tou attended Lansing Community College and earned an associate’s degree in computer information systems before transferring to Davenport University, where he completed his bachelor of science degree in IT and network engineering.
Thanks to great mentoring, he had already begun his transition into the work force. “During college, I started working for the Lansing School District at Eastern High School as a building media support technician,” Tou explains.
“I worked there about two or three years, and then I transferred to the LSD Technology Department.
“At LCC, I started teaching part-time in 2001 in the Information Technology Department. I’ve been there 15 years as an associate adjunct professor. I started teaching at Davenport University nine years ago. My specialty is networking.”
In fact, his parents, Pang Chai Vue and Yer Vue, still live in Lansing. “We came here and never left,” says Tou with a smile. “We liked it here and never made a move.”
The schooling and mentorship he received through the Lansing schools were key to his success.
“If I was to name one person that made a big impact on me, it would be Dotti Shonkwiler,” Tou says. “She was amazing. She provided lots of guidance and advice to me. During the 4 years I was at Eastern, she did everything not only for the Hmong kids, but for lots of Asian kids. She was the advisor of the Asian Club. During my last two years of schooling, junior and senior, I was the president of the Asian Club, so I worked with Dotti all the time.”
“I took advantage of the opportunity I was given here and got the most out of it,” says Tou. “I enjoy working here, and I enjoy teaching because I can give back by being able to mentor others so they can be as successful as I have been or even more. I’ve seen lots of successful students who have gone through IT programs and done well.”
His advice to incoming refugees is “This is the land of opportunity. The resources are here. I always tell my students, ‘What you put in is what you get.’ That’s my motto.”
Candidate for Waverly Community School Board
He and his wife, Shoua, have three children who are students in the Waverly School District. They have resided within the Waverly District for over 18 years.
In the 2020-2021 school year his oldest, Grant, became a member of the Junior National Honor Society as an 8th grader at Waverly Middle School, his younger brother, Gavin joined him as well as a 7th grader. His youngest, Gracelyn is a 3rd grader at Elmwood Elementary.
Tou says, “A school district’s duty is to provide students with a basic foundation through education provided good teachers, however it’s greatest achievements is providing the guidance and confidence the students will need to fulfill their own expectations and prospective goals. I am positive that the Waverly School District has more than accomplished this objective with vigor and will share it with current and future students.”
He states that another crucial component that he continues to witness is strengthened bonds between district and community through the tireless volunteer work of the staff and parents as well as the many programs offered by the district to ensure the ongoing positive growth in the mental and physical health of each student.
Tou says, “With what I have seen so far in Waverly schools, I am proud to say my kids are in good hands with the excellent teachers and administrations.
In my career in the education field both behind the scenes and on stage, I have been blessed to have taught, inspired, and mentored many students who are now working professionally in the IT field. My contributions and impact goes the education environment, I am always striving to be a role model and mentor for the younger generation.”
For more stories on refugees in the Lansing area, log on to http://refugelansing.us