A San Marino woman who traveled to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam has been recognized by Assemblymember Ed Chau as the 49th District’s woman of the year.
“I am recognizing Charlene (Ung) because she exemplifies that with hard work, determination and passion, it is possible to achieve the American dream,” said Chau. “As an immigrant from Vietnam, Charlene persevered through cultural and language barriers, and ultimately put herself through college, to become an engineer at various leading centers of California’s aerospace industry. She serves as a powerful role model to the community and countless immigrants in pursuit of their educational dreams.”
“Being nominated is an honor,” said Charlene Ung.
Ung initially only wanted to tell her daughters how she was a “boat person” from 1978 to 1979, but they convinced her to share her story with the world. She ended up writing her memoirs in “Nam Moi, A Young Girl’s Story of Her Family’s Escape from Vietnam.”
At the age of 11, she boarded a freighter with thousands other people seeking asylum in another country. After six weeks the freighter Tung An was stranded in Manila Bay, Philippines where Ung lived for nine and a half months with 2,318 refugees. She and her family were then transported to a refugee processing center before making their way to the United States. The whole journey took about a year and a half.
She spoke with The Tribune in January, which is how the AssembIymember’s office learned of Ung’s struggles.
“They were touched,” she said. A special ceremony took place in Sacramento on Monday, March 14 and a local ceremony will happen on Friday, March 18 to honor Ung.
Despite her hardships, Ung said she is talking about these painful memories with the hope she will inspire others. She knew very little English when she arrived in the United States, but quickly learned. She got a cosmetology license while in high school with the intention of opening a salon.
Charlene’s father encouraged her and her siblings to get a four-year degree, so she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering at California State University, Northridge and went on to get a Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University.
Ung is now the manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory‘s electronic manufacturing, packaging and technical services section. She recently spoke at her alma mater high school in Alhambra and will soon speak to San Marino High School students about her experiences.
“It’s frustrating to hear kids say college requirements are so tight and getting a job is so hard,” she said. “My story can be an example for them to say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too.’”