Celia Tran, Western Chances and How the West was One

This is Celia Tran’s speech from – Award Ceremony Speech 15 March 2017


I am one of seven children an my parents are refugees from Vietnam. Because of poverty and war my parents did not have the opportunity to complete their education. In the war, all schools were shut down and it was only the children of the army and communist party leaders who were allowed to be educated.

My Dad is from a very poor village and he had to leave school because he needed to earn money to help his family. My Mum though, she went to a good school and would probably have gone to university. She is very smart and I can only imagine where she would be today if she had been able to finish her education. Instead she was forced to leave school in Year 9.

Mum’s father was involved in democratic politics in Vietnam and so the entire family were in danger and it became imperative for them to get out of the country. At best they had no future prospects, at worst they would have been killed.

There was a rule made that all men who were 18 or older had to join the army. My Dad was 20 and already had two children so his brother, my Uncle Two, pretended to be him and served in his place. My Uncle was killed in the war. He was a brave man, a great man who made the ultimate sacrifice for my family.

One night, without warning, my family was told it was time to leave. They left everything behind and, with my two older sisters, my parents boarded the overcrowded fishing boat for the long and treacherous journey to Australia so they could seek asylum, so they could be safe, so they could build a future for their children.

It was a terrifying journey and there were times they did not believe they would survive. Their boat was intercepted in the open ocean and they were taken to Indonesia where they spent two years in a refugee camp before gaining entry into Australia.

They were welcomed by the Australian people. They had nothing and did not speak the language but were helped by various organisations to settle and get started. They were prepared to work hard and do all that they could to give us a secure and happy life and to give us a chance for a great future. They worked so hard, my Dad as a labourer and my Mum in a clothing factory doing ironing. I remember them working 15 hours a day, seven days a week, often taking work home to earn extra money.

But we were really poor. Mostly the fact we lived in poverty was just my life and I didn’t think about it too much. But sometimes it hit me and I felt really sad. I hid the fact I had holes in the bottom of my shoes and it really bugged me that I had to share absolutely EVERYTHING with my brothers and sisters. When one of them took my pen I had to go to school without a pen. I never had a red pen because we just couldn’t afford them and I also never had glue. I used sticky tape from school to complete my assignments and they never looked as good as they could have if only I’d had a glue stick.

I owe my parents a lot and I wanted to do well at school for them as well as for myself. But to do well at school I knew I needed resources and these were very expensive.

I have vivid memories of ‘OMG’ moments of despair every year when I saw the list of books I needed to purchase or found out about an excursion which was going to cost money. I needed the textbooks and I really did want to go on the excursions but the financial pressure on my parents was huge and I felt guilty about costing them so much money.

So I did everything I could to minimise the cost of my education: I borrowed books from the library and secretly photocopied pages while my friend tried to distract the librarians so they wouldn’t see. I’d better not talk too much about that because I can see my school Principal in the audience! I also bought books second hand and bargained for the lowest price and I pretended I didn’t want to go on excursions. The burden I felt was sometimes overwhelming and at times I wondered if I should stay at school or leave to get a job and earn money.

And then I received a Western Chances scholarship. How did this make me feel? It made me feel BLOODY GREAT! I felt really proud that I had earned it and I felt so happy telling my Mum because I knew it relieved her stress. I still have my scholarship certificate – it’s in my ‘proud stash’!

The way my scholarships made me feel was really important but so was the financial support they provided. They helped me purchase a laptop and textbooks. Now I could actually buy Checkpoint books to help me with my study and I could go on excursions guilt free.
At the beginning of the year when I got the booklist I felt free to put a tick next to every brand new book I needed. Now, ironically, I do my best to buy as much as I can second hand!

I finished school and I went to RMIT to study a Bachelor of Social Sciences and then a Master of International Community Development at Victoria University. I am now living the dream: I work with young people in community development and I am very involved in volunteering.

I have been fortunate to receive awards for my community involvement including the 2015 Maribyrnong Youth Leader of the Year and an award for Multicultural Excellence. Last year I was awarded the very prestigious Dame Elizabeth Murdoch Premier’s Volunteer of the Year Award and given $10,000 to donate to a charity of my choice. There really was no choice, I donated the money to Western Chances because it is an exceptional organisation.

I know this not only because I have benefited from scholarships but because last year I was appointed to the Western Chances board. I see first hand the passion, the effort and the care which the staff and board devote to all aspects of ensuring talented young people from Melbourne’s west receive opportunities to achieve their dreams.

Western Chances could not exist without the generosity of so many of you. I would especially like to thank the sponsor of tonight’s ceremony Transurban, I would also like to thank some major supporters who have significantly contributed year after year to help us with our work: Western Health, Melbourne Airport and the Helen McPherson Trust. Without them and without all of you who donate we would not be here to celebrate these fantastic young people.

I would like to finish by offering some words of wisdom to the recipients we are honouring tonight: you are now part of a big family of amazing young people and this is something of which you should be very proud. Make sure you grab every opportunity that comes to you. Continue to work hard, believe in yourselves and know that Western Chances will be there to support you throughout your educational journey and beyond.


You can support Western Chances by purchasing a copy of How the West was One.


How the West was One is a collection of memoirs of Melbourne’s Western Suburbs. Read more here.




  1. Neil Anderson says

    Makes me wish I had emphasized the Western Chances charity more when I reviewed the book after reading Celia’s story.
    If buying a copy of the book will help I can only urge people to do so. You will be supporting a great organization as well as buying a very readable book with contributions from generous well-known supporters from the western-suburbs.

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