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Looking back, looking forward

Thanh Truong, foster care Westcare

e-connect talks to Thanh Truong, who shared his experiences in foster care provided through The Salvation Army's Westcare Child and Adolescent Services (Vic.), at the Victoria State Social Command's inaugural annual report launch. Download this article PDF

Most of us can conjure those ‘first memories’, visuals of our infancy nurtured and buttressed by shared stories and recollections. Toddling down a lane. Playing in a sandpit. Reaching up for a hug. It’s a little different for Thanh Truong.

‘I have some random associations in my mind,’ he explains, ‘I think I can remember times with my biological mother, but I can’t verify them.’

Thanh Truong and his brother, Hai, found themselves in a series of households confronting people who looked different to them, ate different foods and spoke a different language. ‘I can clearly remember the first time I moved in, with that first foster family,’ he says. ‘We didn’t speak a word of English and there were four people in front of us… I was four or five; my brother was about two…’

Looking back on those formative years now, Thanh, aged 24, says ‘the hardest part of moving was the schools – you learnt the same things, and yet there were also big gaps in your knowledge; they’d be learning things in the new class, and I had no idea. I went to four primary schools and then to Kurunjang Secondary College. I had mediocre scores early in high school, and was playing catch-up academically and chasing girls.

‘In year 11, I studied year 12 VCE biology and psychology. I did supplementary courses in year 12 (VCE specialist mathematics and chemistry). My final ATAR was 91.65, but I only required an 88 to be guaranteed access to Melbourne University's Bachelor of Biomedicine in 2011 (this was due to their access Melbourne program).

‘At primary school, and at first in high school, I was anti-social and very withdrawn – it was not conducive to establishing and maintaining friendships. It was not because I wanted to be that way; every time I did make friends I protected myself and held back, because I thought it may only last a few months before I was moved on.

‘Through The Salvation Army’s Westcare I got some counselling and joined the scouts. I learnt what it took to make friends, to give and take. The biggest turning point for me was after the end of year 10. I did two year 12 subjects in year 11, I got some tutoring and did VCE psychology: I was fascinated about learning about the wiring of the brain.

‘I focused on my studies, gave up going to parties, sacrifices some friendships and really developed an urgency; a tunnel vision. I got some scholarships in year 12 and a grant  of $1,500, which allowed me to take specialist maths methods and chemistry. It gave me a real leg up and it opened my eyes. The people who were studying alongside me in the scholarships – they were motivated. They had similar interests. They wanted to do better.

‘I started doing 25 hours of study per week, I really buckled down and my Mum yelled at me for studying too hard,’ he laughs.

‘In 2009 I had the chance to go on one of Westcare’s Creating Memories trips, up to the Northern Territory. It was a great experience.’

The rest is ongoing history. Thanh completed his undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Biomedicine (honours) and has just completed his first year of medicine at the University of Melbourne. It is no easy task, as attested to by the high levels of stress that students experience in the MD stream that Thanh is undertaking. Thanh acknowledges that the university offers debriefing and invaluable advice on coping with exam stress.

Thanh likes to give credit where it’s due; to his adoptive parents. ‘I consider Sharon and Jim, wholeheartedly, to be my parents. I was taken into their care in 1999, but the process of being taken into permanent care took five years; I was adopted finally in 2004.  Westcare had some trouble locating my biological mother and, at the same time, my biological father had appeared. He initially wanted custody of me but later changed his mind.

‘We had been with several families before that, where I had felt like a stranger. I was not with them long enough to grow those relationships. I was just too young to realise what was going on.

‘Caring for my brother, Hai, was a crucial thing; it kept me grounded. Everything was centred on us in a way, as he was a constant in my life. After we were there for six months, it didn’t fall over. Adoption played a big part, but even before that we felt accepted and loved. It was a really nice feeling. – this is ‘home”.

‘I should also emphasise the important role that my step-siblings played throughout my life, as it was just as hard on them as it was on Hai and myself. They had to go through a heck of a lot, and it took quite a while for them to come to terms with it. I fully appreciate them. I undoubtedly consider them my true brothers and sisters.’

Having now completed his first year of his medical degree, Thanh has, as part of his study arrangements, agreed to serve communities in rural Victoria for a year following his graduation as a doctor.  Thereafter? The future is open for him.

‘’I am drawn to neurology, stemming from my love of psychology,’ he says. ‘I was initially fascinated by the field of research, and I wrote my thesis on it. But the funding has largely dried up in recent years and if you don’t produce results you don’t get paid – there’s not much security there.

‘After I have fulfilled my obligation to work in the country, I am interested in working in other countries; in other cultures or in developing nations. To broaden my palette; that’s all from 2021 onwards, so who knows that far ahead what I will decide?’

Whatever the details, the future holds some certainties. Thanh loves knowledge. He wants to help people as a doctor. He loves his family.

And he always wants to be there for Hai. ‘We’ve had out fair share of physical and verbal fights, like any brothers,’ Thanh says. ‘But he’s the only person in the world who knows what I have been through.’
with Barry Gittins