Michelle Tran-Duong

In spring 2020, University of Iowa second-year student Michelle Tran-Duong attended a public conversation where a lecturer said there was no need to worry about COVID-19 and masks weren’t needed.

Michelle Tran-Duong poses for a portrait outside of the Asian Pacific American Cultural Center on March 11, 2021. (Katie Goodale)

Nearly a year later, Tran-Duong can look back and see COVID-19 was minimized toward the beginning of the pandemic, and how it has shaped her on-campus experience and involvement as a Hawkeye.

“There was a different shift in how I attended classes and had to adjust my study schedule and my meetings with student organizations,” Tran-Duong said. “I had to do a whole 180 with my life and switch it around so I could adapt.”

The Iowa City native is the center programming assistant for the Asian Pacific American Cultural Center, the vice president of service and philanthropy in alpha Kappa Delta Phi, and works closely with the Vietnamese Student Association. She is studying International Studies with dual tracks in East Asian Studies and Global Studies.

To continue the “home away from home” mission of the cultural centers, APACC started hosting chat hours on discord, a messaging and chat platform. March 28, Tran-Duong and a friend are hosting a how-to cuisine session over discord on making mochi, a sweet Japanese rice cake. Nutella, red bean, and strawberry are a few favorite additives.

Coming to the UI presented a unique challenge for Tran-Duong, a first-generation college student. Once classes were moved online in spring 2020, however, it was an education format she was not used to.

“I was struggling to adapt,” Tran-Duong said.

Despite the last year of social distancing, Tran-Duong has managed to find unique ways to connect in her work with different organizations with online games, Zoom meetings, and holiday-themed online events. She hopes that once the pandemic has reached a place of calm, the “home away from home” feeling at the cultural centers will be maintained for those coming to the UI for the first-time.

Prisma Ruacho, coordinator of the Asian Pacific American Cultural Center, said that most of Tran-Duong’s experience at the center has been virtually, with a quick turnaround when the pandemic began.

“She’s very proactive,” Ruacho said. “She learned as much as she could and did as much as she could.”

Ruacho said Tran-Duong has been very adaptable throughout heritage-month celebrations and has worked quickly to adapt to the ever-changing COVID-19 environment to create virtual experiences.

Michelle Lu, president of alpha Kappa Delta Phi sorority, said that — although Tran-Duong joined in fall 2019 and had experienced mainly virtual programming — she was quick to take charge and help develop virtual programming over the summer.

“She really kept me grounded,” Lu said. “She really helped us maintain a focus of keeping morale up.”

One thing remains certain for Tran-Duong in her involvements — she hopes that new Hawkeyes will find their place at the UI and return to a “normal” setting.

“I just hope one day that the first-year students will be able to return to their home at the APACC,” Tran-Duong said.

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