Sociologist Van Tran Brings the Immigrant Experience to the Classroom

August 29, 2016
Van Tran Sociologist, Immigrant Refugee

Photo by Barbara Alper

Van Tran is a second-generation refugee. His father left China at age 5, after the 1949 Communist revolution, eventually moving to Vietnam, where Tran was born. But history repeated itself, and in 1990, when Tran was 10, he, his parents and two of his four siblings fled Saigon.

“We spent seven years in refugee camps in Thailand before settling in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx,” said Tran, an assistant professor of sociology who this fall will bring both his research and his potent first-hand experiences as an immigrant to the classroom in two courses, “Immigrant New York” and the graduate workshop “Race, Ethnicity and Migration.”

Tran’s main research focus is on the immigrant second generation—the U.S.-born children of immigrants, whom he believes have a unique perspective. They are situated between two worlds—their new home and the old world of their parents.

“They constantly have to choose between different ways of being in the world,” said Tran who notes that such immigrants often emerge as thoughtful voices on every aspect of American society because of their dual perspectives. “That constant sense of negotiation is a defining feature of the second-generation experience.”

It’s a feeling Tran knows well. In the Bronx, he and his family first lived in a two-bedroom apartment that the International Rescue Committee rented for them in a neighborhood with a small number of Puerto Rican families, a declining population of Italians and very few Asian families. “That was the beginning of our new life in America,” he said.

Upon arrival, a teenage Tran looked for work to help support his family and found a job stocking shelves at Wankel’s Hardware, a store on the wealthy Upper East Side founded in 1896 by what was then one of the most recent immigrant groups, Germans. It was his first encounter with social and cultural differences in the workplace.

“I learned firsthand about the experience of inequality in our city, but also in American society,” said Tran who recalls looking for places to buy an affordable lunch. “The price tags were simply too high for me. So there I was, surrounded by all of these affluent shops and restaurants, and yet I never felt that those were my social spaces.”

The place where he felt a sense of comfort and belonging was the New York Public Library on East 96th Street, where he would sit and read histories or biographies during his lunch break. His love of reading fueled his subsequent journey to Hostos Community College in the South Bronx, where in 2002 he received his associate’s degree in liberal arts, then to Hunter College on the Upper East Side, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2004.

Tran remembers the intellectual excitement at Hunter College where he first encountered sociology. “I continue to be thankful for very supportive faculty who believed in my potential and said, ‘Van, you should go to grad school.’ That made all the difference to a student who did not think he could go beyond a B.A.”

He headed to Cambridge, Mass., for graduate school, receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 2011. “I had the opportunity to learn from some of the most senior scholars in the fields of immigration and urban poverty,” said Tran. “That was a tremendous gift because it opened my eyes to the centrality of immigration in the reshaping of American society.”

Tran, who joined the Columbia faculty in 2013, believes that New York City is a terrific “laboratory,” for teaching, learning and research. He said that his experiences as an immigrant led him to appreciate the role that society can play in welcoming and integrating newcomers. “It also means that I am open to learning from the experiences of those who come from very different backgrounds,” he said. “It prepares me for teaching and advising our students.”

—By Gary Shapiro