From Hardship, Tenacity

CPP Engineering staff Lily Gossage, Ph.D.

A Vietnam refugee and now an advocate for the  students who need it most, Lily Gossage, Ph.D., is the right woman for the job.

By Christopher Park

April 29, 1975

Exodus in Saigon. A frenzy of people everywhere looking for a way out of the city. Sons and daughters held tightly by their mothers and fathers. The People’s Army of Vietnam announced their impending arrival. The Vietnam War is ending. The city is being overthrown.

Five-year-old Lily Gossage is pulled along by her pregnant mother. Behind them are Gossage’s two sisters. Her mother worked for a U.S. government pacification program that was designed to gain support from rural communities controlled by insurgent communist forces. They might kill her if she stays. Either the family will become refugees or perish under the new regime. It is time to go.

They reach the port. Flames in the ocean fueled by diesel leaking from boats. U.S. navy men hurrying native families, and government and military workers onto barges and boats to leave Saigon forever. 

The family gets on a barge, and they drift out to sea for six nights and seven days. Gossage and her sisters subsist on sips of water and powdered milk they lick from their mother’s palm. Then finally, the U.S.S. Midway finds them. Navy men drop ship mast netting down to the refugees. A woman begins the climb. She slips and falls a long way back down to the barge. Dead soon after.

“Looking back, I actually don’t know how I felt. I don't know if it was a sadness,” says Gossage. “These are past memories, but I feel a bit of sadness when I visit the ocean, I don’t feel happy.”

For nearly four months, the family hopped from one camp to another—first Subic Bay in the Philippines, then Guam for one month and then Marine Base Camp Pendleton for another two. Then finally, Long Beach, a coastal city in Southern California. They would build a new life here.

“Just learn English. Learn it well.”

America was different. Pavement and asphalt across flat stretches of single-unit homes with manicured lawns. Every neighbor a Caucasian and the Vietnam War fresh in their minds.

“Never speak Vietnamese in public,” said her mother. “Just learn English. Learn it well.”

10 new words every day. 10 new English words her mother strained to pronounce into a tape recorder for her daughters to listen to on their way to school.

An old photo of a Vietnamese mother with her three daughters.“Those who can’t assimilate won’t know how to decode cross-culturally. I was decoding and code-switching before I knew what it took to learn the language,” says Gossage. “Not just the language, but how certain grammatical nuances are used to emphasize something, offer a compelling argument, and have a meaningful conversation. It was very important to belong. Mastering English was a cultural tool that I needed to survive, to help my family become American. But at home, mother insisted that we speak, live, and celebrate Vietnamese. It was her desire that we keep our homeland in our heart.”

For college, Gossage went to Cal State Long Beach. Her mother worked on campus and kept close tabs on her daughter by befriending Gossage’s professors and administrators. They became Gossage’s aunts and uncles. Her father left years ago, but the family grew. Black and White aunts and uncles,  none of them related by blood, but family nonetheless.

In the service of others

The Peace Corps visited the campus, and Gossage looked at the pamphlet handed to her. A small, malnourished boy with a distended belly. The image stayed with her.

A few years later, Gossage graduated with a bachelor’s in medical microbiology with a minor in chemistry and worked in a laboratory. She worked alone in sterile rooms. Walls without windows, and equipment encased in plastic shells. Words hardly spoken, and some days, no words at all. She thought about the small boy.

“I think it takes a very special person to do this. It's a wonderful type of work, contributing to the scientific community, but I think I was mismatched for lab work.”

She put the last eight years of sacrifice behind her—the sacrifices of her mother, who worked three jobs, and her sisters and herself who all worked full-time to help pay the mortgage. All this for a degree she will never use again. She joined the Peace Corps.

“It was a heart-to-heart talk with my mom. She said, ‘you're not going to make any money.’ She didn’t agree with it, but we didn’t have a dispute. She raised me to make my own choices, so I left.”

The Peace Corps stationed Gossage in a small village in Eritrea, a country in Northeast Africa. Surrounded by highlands and mossy mountains, running water and electricity did not exist there.

An old photo of a Vietnamese woman with a small child in an East African village.Drawing water with a donkey and kindling the fire before dawn. Teaching math, science and English to eighth grade students in the little village from sunrise to sunset. Evening meetings with the principal under a kerosene lamp. A very satisfying year-and-a-half.

“Life can be tough, but I like to help students harness the power of positive self-talk by visualizing past experiences, and exchanging yesterday's pain, anger, and hurt for productive work, here and now.” – Lily Gossage, Ph.D., director of Maximizing Engineering Potential (MEP)

Upon return, her aunts and uncles at Cal State Long Beach greet her with good news about an open position for the founding director of recruitment and retention in the College of Engineering. She applied, took the position, and did a very good job for 15 years.

“The Peace Corps was like my training ground. Cal State Long Beach was like my stomping grounds.”

Now, she directs our Maximizing Engineering Potential (MEP) program. It is much like her previous job but with more focus on recruiting, retaining and graduating engineering students who are underrepresented minorities, low-income, and first-generation—much like her in so many ways.

Personal tenacity, finding strength

“The underlying theme of MEP is personal tenacity. It’s not

something you can teach. You encourage students to embrace their fears with open arms. Once those fears are tackled, they’re no longer distractions. This starts with creating community.

Community is at the core of MEP. There's nothing more powerful than a community energized by personal tenacity. If students feel they belong here, they can weather every storm. We enforce attendance and participation, we value merit and effort. So, there's a little bit of carrot, but there's also a bit of stick, and I think this student success approach comes from my own upbringing.

You know, we all have stories, and mine is not unique. There are a lot of people who had these experiences. I’ve leveraged mine into the service of others. I like to think that my calling is to draw out the best in everyone. Life can be tough, but I like to help students harness the power of positive self-talk by visualizing past experiences, and exchanging yesterday’s pain, anger, hurt for productive work, here and now. We can all move toward intergenerational healing, externalize our pain into positive energy, and transform our lives.”

Second photo: Lily Gossage (bottom-right) with her two sisters and her mother in Long Beach, Calif.

Third photo: Gossage, 25, in the Peace Corps. She served in Eritrea, a small country in East Africa.