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TILLMAN TUESDAY: From Vietnam to America, Scholar Tigon Abalos Embraces Educational Opportunities

Pat Tillman Foundation Communications   |   By Jill Walsh   |   December 8, 2015
2015 Tillman Scholar Tigon Abalos joined the Army National Guard in 2000. Tigon is pictured here inside a Kabul refugee camp

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week we get to know 2015 Tillman Scholar Tigon Abalos who came to America with her family at the age of 13 and is now pursuing her degree in dentistry at UCLA and . Since arriving in America, she has realized the ladder she has to climb is steeper and longer than that of her peers because of her cultural upbringing in Vietnam, but she continues to embrace the American dream with open arms every day.

TELL US ABOUT WHERE YOU GREW UP AND WHAT IT WAS LIKE COMING TO THE UNITED STATES.

“I was born in a rural town in Vietnam and spent my entire childhood with no idea where America was on a map. Growing up in a small village my whole life, all I knew was farming. My father served in the South Vietnamese Army and when the Vietnam War ended he was imprisoned from 1975 to 1981 because of his military service. This made life difficult for our family because anyone affiliated with those imprisoned were looked down upon in Communist Vietnam. I went to school but wasn’t allowed to participate in certain things and though I excelled and earned good grades I wasn’t recognized for my accomplishments.

Growing up our family of nine survived by working a small coffee farm. The process to apply for refugee status to get to America was lengthy and costly so my family sold our farm and everything we owned to pay for it. We applied to come to America in 1990 and were interviewed by the embassy in 1995. We were finally approved to come to America when I was 13. It was like a lottery ticket and all nine of my family members were able to come over to America on permanent one-way tickets. The little money that we had after selling everything of value was less than $1,000.00 and that’s what we came to America with.

Even at the age of 13, I had no idea where America was.  I just knew that you could get there by airplane and when we arrived it was like whole different world. When we got off the plane, all we had were the clothes on our backs and a few backpacks. We were very lost and confused. The American chapter of my journey had started.”

WHAT DID AMERICA PROVIDE THE OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU TO DO AND HOW DID YOUR LIFE CHANGE?

“I was the first one in my family to go to school in America and the first to learn to speak English. In Vietnam when my dad was imprisoned, my older siblings worked to help provide for the family and never had the opportunity to go to college. My mom only had a second grade education in Vietnam and my dad’s only education was through middle school – I was the first in my family to attend high school and it was in the U.S. after having spent my entire life in Vietnam. Looking back, being the first to attend high school has helped me mature more since my family leaned on me because I was the oldest sibling who could speak English. I’m proud that my younger sister just graduated college a few years ago, but I’m still the only one to attend graduate school.”

WHAT DOES YOUR ‘AMERICAN DREAM’ LOOK LIKE?

“We definitely won the jackpot when we came to America.  It’s hard for anyone in America to understand that my family lived in a very rural village that didn’t have running water or an indoor bathroom. On the farm when we needed water to cook or drink we had to put a bucket down a well and bring it up, boil it to make it safe, and then drink it. We had no indoor toilet, just an outhouse over a hole that we dug, imagine that?  To be in America and have an indoor bathroom, running water, and have heat in the house is such a basic dream, but to my family that is their American Dream and they are now living it.  Now, I get to go to college and have the opportunity to pursue MY dream and that is to become a Dentist. I am still living that dream every day.”

WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST ADJUSTMENT FOR YOU COMING TO AMERICA?

“I was the first one to go to high school and had no idea what I was facing. I had no one to talk to because neither of my parents nor my older siblings had gone through that experience. In Vietnam, there would never have been an opportunity for me to go to college because it costs a lot more money. Only the rich had that chance. Also, being one of seven kids in my family, we weren’t able to afford school for all of us though all of my other siblings made it through ninth grade. My hardest adjustment was surviving high school by myself and learning on my own what to study and how to prepare for college and things like that.  Imagine, coming to the U.S. at 13 only speaking Vietnamese and everything culture-wise you knew was from Vietnam, and then suddenly you’re thrust right into high school in a totally different country!”

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO JOIN THE MILITARY AND WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE FOR YOU?

“I was initially approached by a recruiter who was selling the service to me as a job with the Army National Guard as a way to pay for college. I was 18 and still very naive. I could hardly speak English at the time so I thought ‘wow, he’s going to give me a job’ and knowing my dad was Military Police in the Army, the opportunity interested me. Once I joined, I realized it was a whole different world than college and turned out to be greater than I expected.

Having been a student at UC-Berkeley for two years majoring in Political Science, I joined the Army National Guard in 2000. When September 11th happened, I asked my unit if I could switch to active duty. In order to be able to go active duty, I had to put my college studies on hold and so I did. I wanted to go the active duty route because I wasn’t sure what I planned to do with my degree at that point. I felt like I needed to do something beyond school and felt there was no better way than to serve my country full time and travel and deploy.

I was stationed in Germany for five years with a combat deployment to Afghanistan. I also had the opportunity to travel around Europe – which would have never been a possibility for me had I never joined the military.  The experience I gained in the military can’t be described.  I was a young, naive college student going in and came out an old, grizzled Army Veteran, haha!”

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO LEAVE THE SERVICE AND WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO PURSUE A DEGREE IN THE MEDICAL FIELD?

“While I was deployed to Afghanistan for one year I knew I needed to go back to college and I wanted to be in the medical field. As a woman serving as Military Intelligence in the Army I was allowed to go on Humanitarian aid missions to refugee camps near where I was stationed in Kabul. While we were in the camps, I was talking to the women and a lot of them kept asking for medication. I noticed a desperate shortage in health care workers there, especially doctors and nurses that were in need.  Those interactions sparked my interest in the medical field and I knew I needed to go back to the U.S. and finish my degree.”

WHAT SPECIFICALLY SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN PURSUING DENTISTRY?

“When I was in the service and would go on missions, the people we interacted with would smile at me and the first thing I noticed is that they had really bad teeth. Yet, no one could help them. Fixing their teeth is probably not the first thing on the minds of impoverished people in the midst of war. There are doctors and nurses available, but no dentists, so I thought I should explore that field. In fact, I had never been to a dentist myself until I came to America at the age of 13.

My contract with the Army was finished in 2008 and I moved back to Fresno, CA by my family. I decided to pursue a Chemistry degree at California State University, Fresno. I had opportunities to shadow dentists, pharmacists, and other doctors, but dentistry just stuck with me so I started focusing on those classes and finished my undergraduate degree in Chemistry.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU ON YOUR EDUCATION AND MEDICAL PATHS?

“I’m currently in my fourth year at UCLA School of Dentistry and will graduate within the next year as a Doctor of Dental Surgery. I am applying for residency programs with the VA where they have hospital dentistry. They provided oral care for patients with medically compromised issues before and during their hospital treatments – it’s called General Practice Residency. I also plan to start conversations with the Navy in having a contract with them as a dentist.”

WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO APPLY FOR THE TILLMAN SCHOLAR PROGRAM?

“I used my GI Bill for my undergrad and after completing my time with the Army in 2008 my benefits were depleted. I started looking for scholarships at the Veteran’s Resource Center when I was at UCLA and soon learned of the Tillman Scholarship. It was appealing to me to have the opportunity to be part of a great group of people who want to do something for others beyond their career. I felt the scholarship could also help me establish a network within a community of veteran scholars.”

WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU LEARNED YOU HAD BEEN SELECTED AS A TILLMAN SCHOLAR?

“I was really excited because I know it’s more than just a scholarship – it’s being part of a community. It allows me many opportunities to connect with people, spread community service, and actually do something about public health. When I met my fellow scholars at the Leadership Summit I thought, ‘wow, they are so awesome! I am honored to be surrounded with so many amazing people and hear their inspiring stories.’

The scholarship was a huge bonus in helping me eliminate my loans, but it also provided me a platform and resources to commit to continued public service.”

EXPLAIN HOW YOU’RE MAKING AN IMPACT NOW IN YOUR COMMUNITY THROUGH YOUR EDUCATION AND MILITARY EXPERIENCES.

“I volunteered at West LA VA for about two years and in speaking with veterans during my time there, they told me that if they don’t qualify for VA benefits fully, they don’t receive dental treatment. As a result, I refer them to UCLA Dental clinic for a lower fee than that of a private practice. Also in speaking with our veteran’s student coordinator, she mentioned there are a lot of UCLA Veteran students both graduate and undergraduate, that don’t have dental insurance because at UCLA they’re only required to have medical insurance to go to school but not dental. We created the Veteran’s service club at the school of dentistry and realized we needed to start something with subsidized dental care, but we didn’t know how or have any money. With help from our veteran coordinator at UCLA and several dental school faculties, we started writing grants to subsidize dental care. Operation Bruin Smiles was born.  Operation Bruin Smiles is a pilot program I co-founded to address this issue.  We’ve started out small and right now can only treat 30 student veterans at UCLA, but hopefully with more funding we can branch out to treat all veterans, not just UCLA veterans. My greater vision is for this to be a template for subsidized dental care for Veterans at all universities that have a school of dentistry, not just at UCLA.  I am passionate about advancing Veteran health care and this is one area where I feel I have directly affected the current well-being of some of our nation’s Veterans.”

YOU’RE LIVING YOUR AMERICAN DREAM AND MAKING THE MOST OUT OF EVERY OPPORTUNITY. WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN FIVE YEARS?

“I plan to move back to Fresno, Calif. where my husband and family reside. The greater Central Valley is home to a large Veteran population, and also to a disparate socio-economic community of migrant farm workers, two populations that I want to serve.  While in Fresno, I see myself working for the VA and re-starting my military career by becoming a reservist in the Navy. They also have a lot of low cost and nonprofit dental clinics in Fresno because of the migrant workers in the area, which can provide me with the service experience that I seek.”

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED MOST ABOUT YOURSELF THROUGH YOUR SERVICE?

“People were surprised I had such a thick accent being Asian, so when I was in Germany they were confused as to how I was in the U.S. Army. I realized I’m definitely different in that aspect compared to other American soldiers. When I was serving in Afghanistan, it was more culturally shocking for others to see me serving in a U.S. military uniform, as a female nonetheless. I think I helped others realize the diversity of our military.”

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HOW DID YOU GET YOUR NAME, ‘TIGON’?

“My Vietnamese name is really long – we have our last name first, and our first name last so when I came to America my name was completely missed on my resident card. In high school people butchered my name because there are four different ways to spell it, so when I joined the Army and became a naturalized citizen I wanted to get my name straight. When I was applying for a top secret clearance I picked ‘Tigon’ – which comes from a folklore story in Vietnam about flowers and a love story between a poor guy and a rich girl. The name of both the flower and the story was called Tigon. When I googled my name, a Tiger and a Lion appear because a Tigon is the offspring of a tiger and lion. I thought it was very unique and really neat to come up with a name on my own and have the freedom to change it and finally get it right!”