By David Perry
When Alexandra Mai was a freshman, she took a history class that opened a door to her family’s past.
In her History of U.S. Immigration class, Prof. Robert Forrant offered Mai and the other students the opportunity to write their family story. Mai’s parents came to the U.S. from Southeast Asia, and she knew that they had a story of their own, but she knew few of the details.
“I don’t know what I’m getting myself into,” she confessed to Forrant.
He told her, if you’re comfortable, dive in. If not, stop.
She interviewed her father, Cuong, and her mother, Bonna. They opened up. Their stories amazed her. Her eight-page paper is filled with chilling detail.
“Obviously,” says Forrant, “Alexandra’s is a hell of a story.”
The story begins in Vietnam and Cambodia and winds its way to Lowell – more specifically, the UMass Lowell campus. Cuong Mai is a double River Hawk. Alexandra is one of four sisters currently attending the university.
Alexandra, a mathematics major, and her fraternal twin sister Celena, a business major, both 19, are sophomores. Junior Krissandra, 21, is a mathematics major, and 24-year-old Brianna, also a junior, is studying business management.
Everyone finds their own way to college, but few follow a path as long and treacherous as the one forged by Cuong Mai.
As a young man in Vietnam, he craved the freedom to pursue an education and to experience the spirit of America.
Four days before Christmas of 1981, Cuong Mai fled the oppression of his native Vietnam, a nation victimized by war and communist rule. He got on a wooden boat with 70 strangers and set sail. Their boat dodged pirates and the North Vietnamese army.
“I got away,” says Cuong. “You were punished for being educated. The educational opportunity was not there. They kept you from going to college. It was something I wanted.”
The risk, Cuong believed, was worth it.
He landed in the U.S. in 1983. He entered Chelsea High School as a 19-year-old freshman.
He came to UMass Lowell because it was affordable, graduating in 1993 with a bachelor’s in marketing and finance. His MBA followed. He opened a business he still runs, Lowell Tax Service.
Bonna Mai also sought an education following her emigration from Cambodia. She toiled in farm fields for 3½ years in Battambang, then fled, hiding from Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese troops until crossing the border between Cambodia and Thailand. After escaping Cambodia, she spent three years in several refugee camps.
She arrived in Revere in 1981 and eventually earned her undergraduate degree in social work at Rivier College and her master’s from Boston University in 2003. She has worked in early childhood intervention for 26 years.
Cuong and Bonna married in 1993. In addition to their four daughters, they have a younger son.
There was no pressure to attend UML, say the daughters. But it certainly was familiar.
They all attended elementary school at the demonstration school that was formerly on West Campus, and until 2014, the family lived at 144 Wilder St., across the street from Coburn Hall.
“It was a good time for UMass Lowell to expand, and it was good for us,” says Brianna. “It was going on as we were deciding where to go.”
It was hard for Alexandra Mai to imagine going anywhere but UML.
“It can be kind of weird, too,” she said recently. “My sister, Krissandra, and I kind of look alike, and some people say hi to me thinking it’s her.
“People think it’s pretty amazing that we all decided to go to school at the same university. Usually, you go to college and break away from your family, become independent. So in that sense, we’re still intact.”
The parents passed a strong work ethic to their daughters. All four of them work at least one job while in school.
“Ours is an American story,” says Alexandra. “I’m pretty proud of my parents and how they came here and were able to blend into American society while keeping immigrant values. They came from struggle, and they know we should work hard.”
From that freshman year class assignment, Alexandra knows she earned more than an “A”. She recovered the story of her family, and gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for who they are and what they’ve endured.
“I feel like Dr. Forrant has helped me a lot,” she says. “My parents didn’t really talk about their struggle, and then we studied it. Now I actually understand.”