After a difficult journey reconciling her identity, Rutgers graduate Anna Phung is pursuing a career to help other college students who struggle

Anna Phung
Anna Phung helped launch Q&A, a group that provides a safe space for queer and Asian students.
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

“When I first came to Rutgers I didn't know other queer folks and I didn't know any queer and Asian folks. . . in Q&A I was able to feel comfortable in my own skin and be myself, and I know the next generation of students have that support system now."
– Anna Phung

For most of her time at Rutgers Anna Phung was torn apart by secrets.

There was the secret of her sexuality and her failing grades. And her darkest secret of all: She had considered suicide because she didn’t know how to ask for help.

But like many who struggle, the day she hit bottom, and was forced to share her most closely guarded thoughts, was the day she turned a corner.

Now Phung has her diploma in hand, earned a 4.0 her last semester and has been accepted to graduate school. She left her mark on Rutgers by creating a group especially for Asian students who identify as queer. And she is passionate about her new chosen career path – working in student affairs to help others who struggle like she did – a far cry from the economics degree she first pursued to please her family.

“I want people like me to know they have someone who will support them,’’ said Phung, of Egg Harbor Township. “I want to be able to provide that support to students because I know it was very important for my experience going through Rutgers.’’

When Phung started college in 2008 she was haunted by pressure to fulfill her family’s idea of success. That meant getting a well-paying job to help support her parents, who had sacrificed to support her. Her father, who emigrated from Vietnam, and her mother, who came to the United States from China, worked as casino dealers in Atlantic City. They struggled financially when the economic downturn began to affect tourism.

Phung had also been questioning her sexuality and worried that her community and family wouldn’t accept her.

“I felt like if I were queer that would be an imperfection,’’ Phung said. “How would that affect my family? ’’

She avoided her parent’s phone calls, but she knew that also hurt them.

“They would ask if I had a boyfriend and I would say no,’’ Phung said. “It was like another lie I told them. It was really hard to hold more lies and disappoint them in that way.’’

At Rutgers, she lived a compartmentalized existence.  She joined the Cantonese club, helped a friend start a yo-yo club, and became a member of the Asian American leadership cabinet. She also worked at the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities as an office manager and as a special projects intern at the Asian American Cultural Center.

Phung joined a group for Asian students questioning their sexuality, but told everyone she was there as an ally. Before coming to Rutgers, Phung didn't know anyone who identified as queer and didn't feel comfortable being open about her sexuality in the Asian community.

Although she was struggling, Phung kept up a façade of being a perfect student.

“I would go to sleep at night feeling sectioned off, like I was not in control, and feeling really depressed about it,’’ Phung said.

She didn't have the motivation to go to class. In her fourth year at Rutgers in 2012, instead of getting ready to graduate, she was called into a dean’s office and told she could no longer continue at the university because of her grades.

That night Phung finally confessed everything to her apartment mate, including the secret that she was having thoughts of suicide.

Anna Phung at Commencement
Anna Phung at commencement with her mother Bao Zhu Li.  

“At that point, I felt like if I continued with college, and didn't do well, I would put myself in more debt,” Phung said. “I would be a burden on my parents. I wouldn't have all these things my parents aspired me to have.’’

Her friend insisted Phung talk to Ji Hyun Lee, the director of the Asian American Cultural Center.

Lee cleared her calendar to help. She made a call to Mark Schuster, the senior dean of students, who threw Phung a lifeline.

He made arrangements for her to take summer courses. He tapped into the Educational Emergency Assistance Fund, which provides money for students facing exceptional circumstances, and he helped Phung work with financial aid to be able to cover the costs.

Phung did well in both classes and was able to return to Rutgers in the fall to finish a degree in sociology. But more important, she found mentors in Lee, Schuster and Jenny Kurtz at the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities.

“She was so distracted by financial, family and identity issues that she wasn’t able to fulfill her potential,’’ Schuster said. “We help students who have complex issues holistically, not just one issue at a time, and she received a lot of support from multiple resources at the university.’’

Phung started to confide in people that she identified as queer. Lee put her in charge of a support group for queer Asian students called B.R.I.D.G.E. (Building Real Intergroup Dialogue for Greater Equality). The name masked their mission so students could be involved without being open about their sexual identity. Phung helped create a more open group that now calls itself Q&A, which stands for queer and Asian, and provides a safe space for students like her.

Lee said Phung’s work transforming the group could prove life saving for some.

“Students struggling with sexual identity and gender identity face many obstacles, which often impacts mental health and wellness,” Lee said. “Q&A has become a community for these students to connect and have that shared experience so they can support one another.”

A few months after coming out at Rutgers Phung shared her sexual identity with her parents.

To her surprise, it didn’t bring the devastation she had feared. “I found out my mother was worried about my happiness more than anything else,” she said. “She didn't want me to be sad anymore.’’

That semester Phung earned a 3.8 GPA.

And she was on a career path she was excited about.

“The day Ji Lee pushed everything off of her desk for me was the day I realized I wanted to be able to do the same thing,’’ Phung said, “tell a student I am going to help you regardless and make you my top priority.’’

Phung completed her degree in December and participated in commencement May 18. She has been accepted into two master’s degree programs but decided to delay graduate school temporarily to stay close to her family. She is searching for a job in student affairs and hopes her work with Q&A can serve as a model for other universities.

“When I first came to Rutgers I didn't know other queer folks, and I didn't know any queer and Asian folks,’’ Phung said. “I didn't feel safe in the Asian community. In Q&A I was able to feel comfortable in my own skin and be myself, and I know the next generation of students have that support system now.’’