Valedictorian Ivana Giang channels her refugee family story to combat global education inequality

As the proud child of Vietnamese refugees, Giang has spent her time at USC tackling education disparities at a local, national and international level.

May 08, 2019 Joanna Clay

Growing up around beauty salons in suburbs of Ohio, Ivana Giang saw two worlds.

She would be surrounded by other Vietnamese women doing hair and nails, including her mom and aunts, who owned the shops. She often worked the register or swept floors to help out. And then go off to study, working for the higher education her mom and aunts dreamed of.

The child of Vietnamese refugees, Giang knew what her parents endured to get to the U.S. Her dad, now an engineer for General Electric, was forced to leave the country at age 15 by himself by boat. He was rescued by Dutch sailors and raised in the Netherlands before settling in the U.S., where he met her mom at a Vietnamese Catholic church in Columbus. Her mom had arrived just a few years after him, escaping Vietnam where her father — Giang’s grandfather — had been a prisoner of war. She supported the family, sewing car seats in a Honda factory, while Giang’s father got citizenship while studying at The Ohio State University.

“She actually did enroll in community college in Columbus but she had to drop out because she was pregnant with me,” Giang said. “I do all this for her.”

USC 2019 valedictorian rallies against inequality

Giang, the 2019 valedictorian, knows the importance of access to education. Even though her high school accomplishments seemed to check every box — from leading the school magazine, student government and Relay For Life, to the volleyball team — she wouldn’t have made it to USC without a full scholarship because financially, it would be impossible.

While at USC, she’s made it her mission to advocate against the disparities in educational resources that she herself faced, whether it’s around the world or in her own backyard. And the importance of representation, remembering being one of only a few Asian American students in her high school class of 600.

Her junior year, during her semester abroad in Nicaragua, she reported on the impact of NGOs that build schools in the rural communities. While they provide access to education, she found the work done by American tourists was low-skill and could have easily been supplied by local workers, disrupting the local economy. In a country that has experienced historical intervention by the U.S., it nailed down the importance of listening — which is something that’s become a common thread in her work and the focus of her global studies honors thesis.

It’s about respecting the narratives of people who have been disempowered throughout history.

Ivana Giang

“It’s about respecting the narratives of people who have been disempowered throughout history,” Giang said. “It’s about listening to what they have to say — making sure they have the tools and resources to decide for themselves how they want to live as a community.”

From school integration to racial resegregation, Giang wants to make an impact

Studying both global studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and public policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy, she wanted to put her NGO experience to use with an understanding of U.S. politics. After Nicaragua, she got a brief break before spending the summer interning for Sen. Dianne Feinstein on a Leonard D. Schaeffer Fellowship. On Capitol Hill, she had the chance to meet with researchers studying school integration. And in the weeks after President Donald Trump rescinded Obama-era affirmative action guidelines for universities, she asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos what her office planned to do about rising racial resegregation in public schools.

The experience led her to research the problem with USC sociologist Ann Owens, culling federal data from nearly 30 years for her public policy senior thesis.

While she’s looked at these issues from the national and international perspective, she’s made an impact locally on campus as well. She was the Undergraduate Student Government’s first chief diversity officer, a position co-held and co-created sophomore year while she was also assistant director of the diversity affairs committee. During her tenure, she helped develop the curriculum for a class in occupational therapy called Thrive that was aimed at student wellbeing. Her input was critical in conversations around culture and respect on campus.

Over the past four years, she’s also mentored at South L.A. schools, where the majority of students are black or Latino, the latter many of whom were English learners from immigrant families.

“I connect with that narrative as someone who also has immigrant parents,” she said.

USC 2019 valedictorian reexamines her story through Pulitzer-winning professor

She’s been able to explore her own refugee family story at USC, taking the class “The American War in Vietnam” with Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won a 2016 Pulitzer for his novel The Sympathizer.

The class brought up complex feelings about the conflict, knowing she wouldn’t be here without it.

“We’re really looking at these forces and choices that the U.S. has made to intervene. I wouldn’t be here without those. It’s complicated. My parents are proud to have built this life in America even though they were forced out of their country,” Giang said, who is leaving in the fall for a Princeton in Asia fellowship, teaching English at a community college in Vietnam. “At the same time, I have questions if it was morally right to be involved in Vietnam, Nicaragua or other countries that face ‘development issues’ today.”

I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams being taught by a Vietnamese professor.


To be taught by Nguyen was an experience in itself.

“I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams being taught by a Vietnamese professor,” she said. “That’s been incredibly powerful.”

It’s important to have representation, she said. And it’s one of the reasons commencement will be moving for her too. Family members from all across the U.S. — Texas, Louisiana, Ohio — are coming to see her on commencement.

She wants to make them proud. But, as a Vietnamese American valedictorian, she’s already proud.