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Chico State

Inspired by His Parents, Vang Perseveres to Earn Master’s Degree

A portrait of John Vang.
(Jason Halley / University Photographer)

When John Vang walked across the stage to receive his master’s degree from Chico State on May 17, it was supposed to be a celebration. Instead, it was a solemn occasion. His parents—his inspiration—weren’t there. His father, Xae Chon Vang, whose dream was to see his son walk across that stage, died of nasal cancer on April 9 and was laid to rest on May 14. On May 15, Vang’s mother, Mai Xiong, was admitted to the hospital with stomach cancer. Two days later Vang took hold of his diploma, while grief had taken hold of him.

“It was a difficult time,” said Vang. “You do this so your parents will see it and be proud and happy. And then that day none of them were available.”

Today he finds pride in his accomplishments within himself, though he can’t totally shake the regret that his parents weren’t there to celebrate that moment with him. He has much to be proud of. Vang’s educational journey has been challenging. He took two years off at one point, switched majors, and felt inadequate at times. But he kept going, inspired by his parents’ perseverance.

“I really love and respect my parents a lot,” Vang said. “They’ve been through so much, but they always provided what we needed as a family and gave us opportunities they never had.”

The Vangs, like many Hmong families, aided the United States during the Vietnam War. When the US forces withdrew, they faced persecution and fled to a camp in Thailand. From there, they eventually made their way to Oroville in 1993.

“They had nothing, but they came to Oroville because they knew families here who told them they had resources and showed them how to navigate the system,” Vang said. “Since then, they’ve been dedicated to making sure all of us kids have what we need to succeed.”

Born in Oroville in 1995, Vang was the seventh of 10 children. Xae Chon, John’s father, was exceedingly proud of him when he graduated in 2020. It was his dream to see one of his four sons graduate from college, but COVID prevented him from being there the first time around. His second chance came this spring, but the nasal cancer he had fought off in 2019 returned. This time it was more aggressive.

“I told him I’d finish my master’s really quick. ‘Just wait, I got this.’ And he missed it by a month. It was devastating,” Vang said.

Vang wanted badly to share his achievements with his parents. Their experiences inspired him to keep working during challenging times. After his 2014 graduation from Oroville High School, Vang started at Chico State, majoring in physics. But he wasn’t quite ready, and following that first year, he took two years away from school, working and trying to discern his next move. He worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and learned how to drive a jet boat by reading the river.

A different kind of visualization led him back to Chico State, but this time as a biology major.

“When you close your eyes, where do you want to be? Where is that peace? Do you find it in the lab or outside in the woods?” Vang recalls someone asking. “I figured out that I wanted to work somewhere in a lab working with genetics doing research. It kind of clicked.”

Things didn’t suddenly come easily for Vang, a first-generation student who didn’t feel confident in his communication skills. He says he “lacked the skills to be a great researcher and scientist,” but credits Professor Amanda Banet for her patience and helping him develop as a researcher. Then came others like professors Cawa Tran, Kristen Gorman, and Kati Geszvain, who runs the Geszvain Lab, where Vang gathered the data he’s using to complete his thesis.

“They all helped me become a better scientist,” he said. “I lacked skills, but each one added to my skillset.”

Vang has also been working as an Adelante Outreach Coordinator, educating students about graduate school possibilities at Chico State and beyond.

Vang is currently in the process of applying to PhD programs. He plans to become a professor and do research on the side, or work in the industry to develop safe new pharmaceuticals or bacteria.