Christine Tran. • Courtesy Photo
Christine Tran. • Courtesy Photo

“It was the simplest of questions,” Christine Tran says now, “and it completely changed my life.”

Tran’s father, a day laborer, had just come home from work. He and Tran’s mother, a sweatshop worker, were “boat people,” refugees from Vietnam. He used to tell his daughters that he could have become a doctor if he was born in the United States. But at the end of his workday, he was exhausted. His hands were blackened. He asked his 10th grade daughter, “How was your day?” His daughter stared at his hands. She couldn’t believe that after his day, he found the simple courtesy and grace to ask how her day had gone.

Tran now calls that conversation one of her “lightbulb moments,” one which inspired her to create change, to believe that “tomorrow will be better for everyone.” That idealism extends into her work today, including her work as a volunteer at the Pike Place Market Education program. A graduate student at the University of Washington Seattle, Tran is working towards a degree in Educational Leadership and Policy, specializing in school nutrition programs. She characterizes her work as existing at the intersection of educational practice and policy, or “when good intentions go right.”

As an undergraduate at UCLA, Tran struggled with her classes, and worried about the cost to her family. “I had financial aid,” she says. “I knew what one class cost.” Ethnic studies, especially Asian American studies classes, were the classes which sustained her. Even growing up in ethnically diverse Southern California, “[these classes were] the first time I saw myself in history,” she says. The inspiration she gained from her Asian American studies classes led her—as an undergraduate—to create teacher education workshops. “People always said to me, ‘I want to be a teacher,’ but they didn’t know how to go about it,” she recalls.

After graduating college, Tran taught middle school for two years in South Central Los Angeles. Sixty percent of the students lived in foster homes. There were homeless students, students who arrived post-Katrina from New Orleans, “refugees,” she says, and their connections to her own family story gave her pause. Moreover, nearly every student qualified for free lunch. “The moment I stepped into the classroom,” she says, “I noticed there was a problem with food.” A student lost consciousness during class, and fell over. After he came back from the nurse’s office, he brought a note, which told her not to send hungry kids to the nurse. Anxious about her students, Tran began to buy extra food and bring it to school. “I didn’t know who was hungry.”

Later, teaching at a high school in East Los Angeles for two years, Tran worked with students who lived in hunger, but often did not eat the free lunch offered because of the social stigma attached to free lunch because “[they] genuinely believed it was something bad.” Many of her students had family members in jail or had been in “County” themselves. But she had also grown up a “free lunch kid” herself.

“We didn’t have the myth of stigma attached to school food,” she says. “I wanted to find out more about where the stigma came from.” But her students had culturally structured stigma, generationally passed down. When she interviewed students and families about their school lunches, parents and older generations were surprised, exclaiming, “They’re still calling it ‘County’ food?” And their perceptions were not so far off; Tran noted that many of the same vendors who provided food for the prison system also provided food for the school system.

These kinds of experiences fueled Tran’s interest in school nutrition and the social stigma attached to school food—her Master’s thesis was on why students ate “hot chips” for lunch. When asked how interested citizens and parents can advocate for better school nutrition, she responds:

“We know that good food helps students be happy, healthy, and supports their ability to perform academically. … [So,] we have to look at where we want to be advocates. … I think starting at the school-level is a good start because its the most direct and community-based approach. Schools are pillars in our communities and we are all stakeholders—students, parents, and the public-at-large. Unfortunately, at the school level many interests collide.

“Between instructional-related agendas like meeting adequate yearly progress and high stakes testing, school nutrition is often hard for school leaders to focus on or even invest in. If we prioritize quality food and overall school food experiences like adequate time to eat and play, then students can ultimately perform better across the board. As a parent or a citizen, we have the ability to use our voices to speak up, especially students. As a society we often don’t listen to students and we need to. … Not only can we learn about what the issues are first-hand, but it provides students the opportunity to be agents of change and start early to become who they want to be in this world.”

Though Tran’s educational journey has taken her all over the country, her parents remain proud of their oldest daughter, her travels, and her independence: “Culturally, daughters only leave the home when they are married. Although my parents never went to college, they knew that it was important and encouraged me in my educational pursuits. As my pathways have gotten more complex with as my travels and work took different turns, it was hard to explain to my parents what I was doing. Words and concepts like “fellowships” and “policy work” are not easy to explain in Vietnamese or English.” After several fellowships related to school nutrition, she is pursuing her doctorate in Educational Policy and Leadership at UW, hoping to provide assistance to those who need it.

“I see myself as a product of great social policy,” she says. “I’d like to lend what I’ve learned to people who can use the help. I’d like to go where I can be of service. No matter how my life has changed since 10th grade, I am still very much driven by social justice and to do good in this world. … The only thing that has really changed is my scope [and] my sense of community—they have grown, both ideologically and geographically. … I often reflect on this—my parents endured and survived war and poverty—the best thing I can do for them and for myself is give this world the best me I can put forth.”

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