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Web update: Tran GS remembered as advocate for immigrants

Memorial service to be held Wednesday at Manning Chapel

Tam Tran GS was a brilliant scholar, involved daughter and sister, innovative filmmaker, selfless friend and tireless lobbyist, according to her friends, family, coworkers and collaborators. Since Tran's death at age 27 Saturday in a car crash in Maine, colleagues and companions between and beyond Brown and her alma mater, the University of California at Los Angeles, have united to celebrate her life and uphold her legacy.

Columbia graduate student and fellow UCLA alum Cinthya Felix also died in the crash. Driver Heather Lee GS, who was seeking local archives for research, survived with minor injuries.

Tran's passion for immigrants' rights drove her academic, political and personal lives. German-born, U.S.-raised and of Vietnamese heritage, she never gained citizenship from any country. She identified herself on forms as a citizen of "the world," according to her 2007 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee in support of the DREAM Act, which would allow educated children of immigrants to receive green cards.

"I knew her by reputation before I actually met her," said William Perez, assistant professor of education at Claremont Graduate University.

As an undergraduate, Tran met Perez through their mutual advocacy for undocumented students. They discussed their work at film festivals, marches and rallies throughout the subsequent years, he said.

"She was visionary. She could see the big picture" and look ahead, he said. "Her leadership style was rare," Perez added, in that she worked behind the scenes and "always highlighted the efforts of others."

Soon after arriving at Brown in fall 2008, Tran, along with VyVy Trinh '11, founded the Brown Immigrants' Rights Coalition, which has advocated for the DREAM Act and lobbied at the Rhode Island State House for legislation that would grant in-state tuition to undocumented students.

"Tam Tran was an incredible leader and organizer and charismatic advocate, and it's really thanks to her that we accomplished as much as we did," said Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies Steve Rabson, who joined the coalition after being "moved" by a presentation Tran made.

"She wouldn't be the loudest person in the room, but when she would sort of nod her head and say, ‘Yeah, let's do that,' it would get done because of the work she put in," said Ryan Wong '10, a member of the coalition who knew Tran since her undergraduate years and remembers her "solid, understated resolve."

As the group's co-chair, Tran "completely led by example" and with a sense of humor, according to Trinh. "She'd always make sure that younger people had the opportunity to step up and learn advocacy by doing it," she said.

Tran's humility was exceptional, she added.

Constantly reaching out to others, she "never spoke about her own oppressions," coalition co-chair Lucy Boltz '12 wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

"I didn't realize how much she impacted my life until she just passed away," Trinh added. "She was a friend and she's somebody I admire a lot."

Professional, personal, political
As a doctoral student in American civilization, Tran was a "creative, intuitive thinker," said Associate Professor of American Civilization Matthew Garcia. "I was so impressed with the way she could mix her political passions with her intellectual passions," he said, something "a lot of scholars have a harder time doing."

Tran's advisor, Professor of American Civilization Rhacel Parrenas, called Tran "amazingly accomplished." She added, "What most people don't know about her is that she was also a true intellectual and a real scholar in the making."

Last Wednesday, several days before the accident, Tran spoke to Parrenas about a rough draft of her dissertation, "a theoretically groundbreaking work" on the subjectivity of undocumented youth, even though it wasn't due for over a year.

Parrenas' parting advice was, "It's brilliant and you need to claim it, but you need to be careful because some scholar is going to want to steal it," she said.

Lending her lens
Documentary filmmaking also served as an outlet for Tran's story and politics. "Lost and Found," part of last year's Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and "Seattle Underground Railroad," which follows a road trip including Tran and Felix, screened Monday at UCLA at a memorial service for the two. A group of students, faculty and various community members watched a simulcast of the ceremony at Brown's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in America Monday evening. 

Tran's brother Lolly presented a poem about his sister at the service, calling her "the best German import since Mercedes-Benz" and an "active dreamer."

Stephanie Solis, the subject of "Lost and Found," told the mourners at UCLA she remembers her friend as an "amazing, inspiring leader" who took on the role of "guardian angel" and "cheerleader" for many.

Metabolic might
"We knew her as a human being, as a friend, as just a generous soul. She was incredibly precious to me," said Garcia, who said his favorite memories of Tran include "eating tacos with various contents" while discussing her studies and politics.

"It was over a taco that she could really share what she was thinking and reach some conclusions about what she was doing with her life," he said. "I know it's silly, but that was a nice thing."

He added, "I was teaching a food class, and I said, ‘Tam, this doesn't connect to anything you're interested in,' and she said, ‘I'm interested in eating, aren't I?' "

"She would mix activism, food and friendship so that you were just hanging out and also doing advocacy," Boltz wrote.

Rabson said he "always wondered how she could eat so generously," theorizing that Tran exerted "so much effort and so much energy that the food she ate, she just burned it up."

Tran was "so amazingly positive and cheerful," he added. "I remember her as being extremely effervescent, extremely positive and just totally devoted to immigration reform."

A racing comet
Tran reached out to the community in sundry ways while at Brown, individually and with the Immigrants' Rights Coalition. Her initiatives included speaking about issues relating to undocumented youth at schools, such as the International Charter School in Pawtucket.

Tran had the energy of "a comet racing across the sky," was "fearless in terms of presenting her story" and "really believed in fighting for a cause," said Julie Nora, the school's principal. "She made such an imprint wherever she went."

Nora recently referred a former Charter School student, who was having trouble getting employed with no Social Security card, to Tran, confident that "she would solve it all," she said.

Tran and Boltz ran workshops at Hope High School on communicating with representatives about immigration laws. They also spoke at Blackstone Academy in Pawtucket about education opportunities for undocumented students, Boltz wrote. Tran would instant message an undocumented high school graduate nightly to check up on him, she added.

"That was her activism, taking an interest in people on a personal level," she wrote, adding that she hopes "others will learn from her that activism is in everything you do."

Tran also served on the advisory committee of the Cesar Chavez Scholarship Fund, an organization for Latino youth in Rhode Island, which just created a special grant to honor her. The posthumously named Tam Tran Scholarship will be available to all undocumented students, an expansion to the program she had recommended while on the board, according to the fund's Web site.

Only the beginning
Tran's dedication, serenity, modesty, warm heart and "incredible passion for justice" will remain alive within the Immigrants' Rights Coalition, according to its adviser, Postdoc
toral Research Associate in Public Policy Alexandra Filindra. The coalition will continue to work toward legislation helping immigrants and, in the meantime, try to provide financial, legal and emotional support for the Tran family, she said.

Filindra added that she hopes a private bill in Congress will award Tran posthumous citizenship.

In just 27 years, Trinh said, Tran did a commendable job "changing students' lives and turning them into activists."

Because Tran and Felix were widely known and celebrated within the international immigrants' rights community, University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson received about 150 phone inquiries about services Tuesday alone, she said. "These two women were the experts. They were the people living this nightmare."

Tran's memorial service in Manning Chapel at 5 p.m. Wednesday will pay "respect to the vast reach of her work," Cooper Nelson said.

"Tam and Cinthya were such icons and powerful leaders and voices," Wong said.

— With additional reporting by Nicole Friedman



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