Anh-Tuan Tong: Medical school journey began with family’s South Vietnamese flight

For many, the path to medical school is paved with uncertainties and challenges. And then there’s the journey of Anh-Tuan Tong ‘19 and his family.
Posted on February 24th, 2021 by

by Dana Melius

Anh-Tuan is a first-generation Vietnamese American, the son of Vietnam War refugees. His father is a veteran of the South Vietnamese Air Force and a political refugee; his mother fled the communist regime, a boat refugee.

His father, great uncle, and grandfather all served for the South Vietnamese military during the war, and their flight out of a turbulent Vietnam was a harrowing journey.

“They fled the day before Saigon fell,” Anh-Tuan said. “And every one of those on my mom’s side fled by boat.”

Three Tong family groups eventually arrived in Camp Pendleton, California, finally settling in Hutchinson as Minnesota was “the only state that would take all of them,” according to Anh-Tuan. In the 1990s, Anh-Tuan’s father moved to the Twin Cities area, where he and his mother met and were married.

The family settled in Little Canada, with Anh-Tuan attending Roseville Area Schools. His father would serve as an interpreter for his sister’s translation company, Kim Tong Translation Service (KTTS Inc.), often visiting other South Vietnamese refugees in public housing apartments in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. Anh-Tuan’s mother is a homemaker and part-time janitor for KTTS.

“Growing up as the son of Vietnamese refugees, their experiences living through the Vietnam War impacted my life,” Anh-Tuan says. “The memories of war haunt them to this day and they never found success in the U.S.”

He and his sister, Anh-Thu, would both eventually make Gustavus their collegiate choices. His sister graduated from Gustavus in 2017, two years before Anh-Tuan, a biology and pre-med student. Neither, he said, realized fully the sacrifices their parents made to make college a reality for their children.

Anh-Tuan Tong swears in as a second lieutenant after receiving a direct commission as an officer through the Air Force Health Professions Scholarship Program.

“We were always struggling with our finances,” Anh-Tuan recalled. “The catalyst for me to take charge of my own future came when I and my dad went to the bank to get a loan to pay for my sister’s education. My dad was denied…I knew my parents could not support me through college, so I made a choice to join the Air Force Reserve.”

Anh-Tuan didn’t make that decision until his sophomore year at Gustavus, as “kind of a heritage thing.” He had first looked at an ROTC program in Mankato but failed the physical fitness test there and at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

The early setbacks lit a fire in Tong, who redoubled his fitness efforts. He went on to be named an honor graduate at basic training and a distinguished graduate of the air transportation apprentice course.

His workout routine while a student at Gustavus helped keep his Air Force Reserve training in sight and eventually led to a 90-day continuous commitment, qualifying him for the Post-911 GI Bill and helping him stay enrolled in college.

The journey to medical school
Anh-Tuan’s extracurricular activities at Gustavus included founding the Asian American Outreach (AAO) in 2018. He thought it was important to highlight “the socio-economic issues that afflicted the community and to build better bonds in our community.”

Tong (front, center) with fellow Gusties in the Beta Beta Beta Biological Honors Society.

There was also student employment in the Gustavus Diversity Center, now the Center for Inclusive Excellence. Anh-Tuan then helped create an educational board for the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

That wasn’t all. Anh-Tuan joined the Gustavus Barbell Club. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity. The Beta Beta Beta National Biological Honor Society. The Gustavus Pre-Health Club. The Gustavus Quiz Bowl club.

“I realized that Gustavus was a pretty good fit for me,” Anh-Tuan said.

Heather Banks, a career development specialist at Gustavus, agrees. She said Anh-Tuan participated in the College’s January Interim Pre-Health Career Exploration at River’s Edge Hospital during his sophomore year. The opportunity allowed Anh-Tuan to shadow health care professionals for over 30 hours each week.

“This opportunity provided Anh-Tuan with the exposure and confirmation that he needed to continue his pre-medical pursuit,” Banks said. “I have always found Anh-Tuan to be very hard working and professional. He will be a great physician.”

Anh-Tuan said his time shadowing at River’s Edge was a critical time of personal development and led to a better understanding about community.

“This experience was more than just shadowing, it also taught me the development of compassionate care in rural communities,” he said. “The close bonds I experienced further bolstered my passion for healthcare and increased my interest in rural healthcare.”

Anh-Tuan also picked up additional experience shadowing at the University of Minnesota Physicians – Bethesda Clinic in St. Paul. And he later served as a pharmacy technician for Cub Foods.

Tong was selected for a full-tuition scholarship to medical school through the Air Force Health Professions Scholarship. He has been accepted to the Kansas City University College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in East Lansing, Michigan.

Gustie classmate Orissa Nitibhon, a dentistry candidate at Midwestern University College of Dental Medicine – Illinois, remembers Anh-Tuan “as being the most hard-working, well-disciplined student I met during my time at Gustavus.”

“Whenever we were not in the classroom or laboratory together, Anh-Tuan was either working as an employee in the Diversity Center or working out in Lund with his Barbell Club,” Nitibhon said. “He excelled academically…and never failed to make our colleagues and professors laugh. He was a traveling comedian in and outside of the classroom. There was never a dull moment while Anh-Tuan was around.”

Now, the journey into medical school gets a bit more serious for Anh-Tuan.

“I grew up meeting many refugees and hearing their struggles and it had a significant influence on my decision to pursue a career in medicine,” he says. “My dream of becoming a physician is so that I can uplift and care for people in underserved communities.”

“I know my unique journey will help me succeed in medical school and the communities I will serve.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


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