Hanh Bui, NOVA Alum and Celebrated Author, Talks About Overcoming Self-Doubt During AANHPI Heritage Month

May 31, 2023

In closing AANHPI Month, we celebrate author Hanh Bui for writing a book that recognizes young readers’ discovery of their heritage. The book is called The Yellow Áo Dài. Her first published book has received praise and acclaim from fellow authors and community members.

Hanh Bui

Inspired by her first teacher at the refugee camp, Hanh Bui pursued a master’s degree in early childhood education and went on to teach second grade for many years. She has previously served as a Development Officer for the Senhoa Foundation, which supports women and children who survived human trafficking in Cambodia and has volunteered on boards supporting children and parents in building community.

Bui’s commitment to celebrating her heritage includes giving presentations about her refugee experience to students studying immigration as part of their school curriculum. She currently serves as co-chair of the Equity and Inclusion Team for the Mid-Atlantic region of SCBWI and has been featured in ‘Highlights for Children' magazine, Next Avenue and Forbes. She is the author of The Yellow Áo Dài and Ánh's New Word.

Yellow Ao Dai bookcover

Praise for The Yellow Áo Dài:

"This simple, lyrical, touching story took me to a place that I did not know but to emotions that belong to us all. I will not forget it and its lesson of confession, forgiveness, and love." —Jane Yolen, award-winning author of Owl Moon and over 400 other books for children

"A truly heartwarming story of mother and daughter, generations, and traditions, and ultimately forgiveness and unconditional love that will make you want to share this wonderful book with someone you love. " —Mary Rand Hess, New York Times bestselling author

"Heartwarming ... Lovely illustrations, using subtle colors and graceful lines to define the characters and express Naliah’s shifting emotions, concluding with joy and contentment. A picture book celebrating immigrants and their families’ cultures." —Booklist

"Vietnamese culture is beautifully honored through Phan’s expressive, cheerful watercolors. ... Naliah’s story teaches readers about the importance of family and culture in forming identity. ... Would pair especially well with Eva Chen’s I Am Golden, Joanna Ho’s Eyes that Kiss in the Corners and Nabela Noor’s Beautifully Me." —School Library Journal
Read more about Hanh’s incredible journey that led her to write captivating children’s books.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background:

I was only eight years old when my family and I left war-torn Vietnam. We were rescued at sea by the United States Navy and, after six months at a refugee camp, we were sponsored and settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I will always be grateful for the kindness from the American community members my family and I met, who advocated and supported us as we started a new life in America.

Inspired by my first teacher at the refugee camp, I knew early on that I would someday become a teacher. After graduating from NOVA, I earned my Bachelor of Arts in English and pursued a master’s degree in early childhood education at George Mason University. I taught second grade before taking time to care for my children. 

I am the author of two books: The Yellow Áo Dài (published 2023, Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan) and Ánh’s New Word (slated for publication 2024, Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan). My experiences as a refugee have inspired me to live from a place of gratitude and to have meaningful purpose in all of my endeavors, so I may continue the positive ripple effect started when I was a child. I want all children to feel safe and seen.

What brought you to NOVA?

After I graduated from high school, I attended a university near my hometown. My grandmother had just passed away. She was my primary caretaker and raised me from the time I was a baby. She was my anchor and provided a secure base for me throughout my childhood. Losing her in my teenage years was a devastating loss while attending my first university. 

At that time, I had trouble focusing on my studies and did poorly in school. I made the decision to drop out of college and get a full-time job until I felt ready to return to my studies. After working at several different jobs, I realized that the only way I could become a teacher was to go back to higher education and earn degrees. I chose NOVA because I wanted to attend a two-year college where I wouldn't feel lost or alone among a smaller student body.

My hope was to find connection and community with a caring team of educators. I also knew that it was important for me to go to college—not because it was what was expected of me as the next step in graduating from high school, but because I wanted to. I decided to return to college for me, as a necessary building block on my career path.

What did you study at NOVA?

I studied general studies at NOVA.

Tell us about your experience at NOVA (i.e., professors you’ve liked and friends you’ve met) 

I began my studies at NOVA in August 1989, and on my first day at the college, I immediately went to the counseling department to ask for guidance. This time for my journey in higher education, I had a plan. I knew I needed help from a career counselor to make informed decisions about course selection in order for me to have the best possible chance of success. Ellen Fancher was my counselor when I attended NOVA. She was pivotal in helping build my self-esteem, set goals for myself, and navigate life as a college student starting over again.

When I first met Ellen, I shared with her how defeated I felt about not doing well at the first university I attended. I felt like a failure and that I let my family down. She reassured me that I was not alone on my journey. Her words and kind guidance helped me to believe in myself and take the first of many steps to being successful in college. Under her umbrella of compassionate care, I learned to take meaningful risks, overcome my insecurities and shyness and to advocate for myself in and out of the classroom.

Ellen helped me to feel seen and valued exactly where I was as a young adult struggling with life decisions. She validated my experiences and normalized things I felt ashamed of, such as being unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. Letting go of my self-doubt and worries helped me grow in confidence. I was more than enough in her eyes. She helped me to believe in my potential and my dreams.

Ellen introduced me to Dr. Sylvas, the Provost at NOVA, Woodbridge Campus. I spent time getting to know Dr. Sylvas and I learned that he served in the Vietnam War. At first, I was intimidated by his tall stature and deep voice. I also wasn’t sure how he felt about his experiences in Vietnam. He helped me feel comfortable by sharing kind words about the people he met in Vietnam. I thanked him for helping the Vietnamese people.

As a refugee, I felt immense gratitude to him for his service to his country, and also to my homeland. Dr. Sylvas invited me to be the student representative for a ribbon cutting ceremony ahead of my graduation at NOVA. I felt proud and honored to be asked.

Today, I am happy to know that my dear counselor many years ago has now become Dean of Student Success at the Annandale Campus. I will always be grateful to her for empowering me to achieve success during my time at NOVA.

What would you tell a student coming to NOVA?

I would tell students coming to NOVA to know they are not alone. Then I would encourage them to seek help if they need it from career counselors and professors. Work hard and choose to do what they love. If they take classes they're interested in, they will be more motivated to do their best. There may be challenges along the way, but hardships will show them what they're made up of and will help them appreciate the successes even more. Adulting is hard, but it’ll be worth it. Lastly, having a positive mindset helps greatly.

Topics: featured article, diversity and inclusion, student success