A Better Life

A portrait of Victoria Doan with her mother Chan Quach.
Mt. Lebanon High School senior Victoria Doan, with her mother, Chan Quach. Last year Victoria received the Richard J. Madden Scholarship, given to a college-bound junior. Chan left her native Vietnam in 1981, at the age of 15,one of many refugees who took their chances in open boats to escape the regime.

n 1981, in the early morning dark just outside Saigon, a 15-year-old girl named Chan Quach steps carefully onto a fishing boat at the water’s edge. The boat, now holding many more passengers than it was designed to carry, is bound for the open ocean. She huddles close to her sister and mother already on board. She carries nothing; only the clothes she’s wearing. Her father and four other siblings slipped away by boat for America two years earlier, and now, they hope to join them. The girl has to stay wide awake no matter how tired she is, and focus on staying close to her mother and sister. Chan’s large extended family, now living in Mt. Lebanon—next door, down the street, and one block over—is exceptionally close: this is what has made Chan strong. Her 92-year-old father, Dieu, lives next door with her aunt Phuong; her uncle Chi Giang, and a niece, Katelyn Quach-Giang, a Mt. Lebanon High School senior, are a couple of houses down, as is her nephew, Tyler, and the other original Quach siblings with their families.

Chan’s daughter, Tori Doan, like her mother, is focused and determined. Their large family is a circle of strength and support.

Tori, a senior at Mt. Lebanon High School, was chosen as the 2021 recipient of the Richard J. Madden Scholarship for exceptional college-bound students. The Madden scholarship has been awarded to a Mt. Lebanon High School junior who is facing financial need, and who will finish their senior year at Mt. Lebanon. Tori plans to embark on a six-year program to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree at either Duquesne University or St. Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania.

In 1981, Chan was among the “boat people,” South Vietnamese citizens who left their homeland at the end of the Vietnam War. Along with her mother and sister, Chan crammed into a boat with 75 other refugees. The Vietnam War had decimated her country, and a strict communist regime was in power; refugees were fleeing the country by the thousands.

Her mother went door to door asking neighbors for money for the passage; neighbors contributed what they could, which was just enough. The passengers endured 36 hours without food or water. Finally, they were spotted by an American ship, which brought them aboard.

After many long weeks, Chan would join her father and four remaining siblings in Bethel Park. Difficult struggles were ahead: going to high school while learning a new language; Marriage, baby, divorce and single motherhood; looking for work, learning new skills, some years working three jobs.

Tori was in anatomy class when she received an email inviting her to the scholarship awards ceremony.

Tori asked to be excused from class to visit the counseling office, and, as she tells it, “I ran down and had a nice moment with my counselor (Joy Rullo); there were hugs and it was very exciting, because I knew the awards ceremony was for scholarships available only to seniors so I knew as soon as I got the email that I got it.” She didn’t see her mother until later that day when she picked her up from school. When she gave her the news, Chan was elated; this was the key to what she wanted for her daughter: to have a better life, “after all the years things were bad,’ said Tori.

As a child, Tori was always in motion, so Chan signed her up for tap and jazz dance at Borelli’s Dance Studio at age two, and Tori thrived on it. Chan was able to manage the cost of lessons and costumes by doing sewing for the studio. After more than 10 years of tap and jazz and many competitions, Tori became a member of the Mt. Lebanon Dance Company her freshman year.

Tori has managed to maintain perfect attendance throughout her school career, (not counting one excused absence for a college visit, and one tardy). She’s the kind of student, who, knowing she has a five-page paper due at the end of the month, schedules time to work on it daily, sometimes one or two paragraphs at a time, until it’s finished. She deliberately took less demanding coursework this year ‘because I didn’t want to become overwhelmed. I didn’t want to do that to myself.” (Tori also works a part-time job about 20 hours per week.)

She manages her time like a CEO, setting daily reminders on her phone to complete assignments. Texting long paragraphs is not her style: she texts only short messages, takes part in her homeroom’s group chat, and has been her homeroom’s representative for two years–“the reminder person,” she says.

Who is Tori’s reminder person? “My mom,” she answered. “She’s always saying to me, ‘Stay focused. Stay on track.’” Chan has worked full-time at TJ Maxx as an associate operations manager for five years, after working two and three jobs at a time: at a local mattress manufacturer, cleaning houses, selling goods at Trader Jack’s on Rt. 50 in Bridgeville. “I appreciate everything I have right now,” says Tori, who’s heard the family stories of their exodus from South Vietnam—her grandfather’s passage at night by fishing boat with his four young children in ‘79—and won’t ever forget them.

“I work hard. It’s always go-go-go!” Chan says. “I promised myself that (Tori) was going to have a better life. I don’t give up.”

Not after her divorce when Tori was a baby, when her husband left her in serious debt, which she managed to pay off by working those three jobs. Those were dark, difficult days.

“I couldn’t eat. I always said, “My dinner was my tears.”

She lost her smile for a long time, she says.

Chan’s promise came true, and Tori’s future looks very bright indeed.

Photos by John Schisler