Cambodian Immigrant Turns Street Lessons in English into Full-Time Position at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, MA

Tooch Van was the youngest of 10 children, a baby when the Khmer Rouge took his family away. His parents must have hid him, he says; a neighbor later heard his cries, “A miracle.” In Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge set out to build an agrarian collective, anyone with a hint of an education — “people who wear glasses, or have a pen,” Van says — were killed. When soldiers learned that Van’s father was a university teacher, they executed every family member they could find.

“I didn’t remember my parents’ names, my brothers’ names, theirs faces,” Van says. By age 15, he had run away from two abusive homes. “But I couldn’t blame them,” he says. “They were just in survival mode.” After high school, he drove taxis, and with four friends hired a man to secretly teach them English, a prohibited language in a country still under communist control. They held court on the street, and paid the teacher in rice and cans of condensed milk. “We were so afraid,” he says. “Once we saw a police motorbike just pass by and we all just run away, including our teacher. We just run.”

Van picked up enough English to get a job at the U.S. Embassy, where he happened to meet a delegate from Middlesex Community College (MCC) who invited him to apply for a one-year scholarship. Van did well, and has been in Lowell ever since, staying to earn an associate’s degree, then a bachelor’s, then a master’s. He is married and has two children. After more than a decade as an international student advisor at MCC, Van now coordinates community outreach for the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association and UMass Lowell.   

“After 35 years of settlement, English is still a barrier” for many, says Van, who recalls his own struggles. He’d had only a dozen street lessons before landing at MCC.

“I remember they ask me to read Shakespeare and Thoreau, I just sit in the room and cry,” he says. “I used a lot of tutoring services. I closed down the reading lab every night.”

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