When Ashleigh-Anne Au, PharmD, RPh, heard her name announced in 2017 as the recipient of the College of Pharmacy’s very first Teacher of the Year award, she was shocked and delighted. In her first year of teaching, at her first academic post, Dr. Au found a health care education community that she loves — and that loves her. Her success as an educator is rooted in her sincere and spirited personality, and an outlook on life that marries ambition, hard work, faith and a willingness to meet life’s challenges head-on.
However, the casual observer of that awards ceremony could never know what hardship and danger Dr. Au rose from, or how, 35 years ago, she was once called forth in entirely different circumstances: she was a starving 7-year-old girl, wedged with scores of others deep inside a refugee boat, perched painfully on fishing nets. And instead of being called up to receive an award for excellence, she was being summoned from the teeming bottom of the boat so that she could say goodbye to her dying mother.
Dr. Au’s mother had secured passage from Vietnam in 1983 on a refugee boat for herself and two of her children — Dr. Au and her middle sister — with gold sewn into the hems of their clothes. Dr. Au’s father was not with them because he languished in a cell at a Communist re-education camp, where he was tortured for the rank he held in the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War. Thankfully, Dr. Au’s mother’s life was saved when, as she lay dying and her children were called to attend to her, she was given clean water. It turns out she had been dispensing her own ration of water to her daughters and taking none for herself. After five days at sea, they landed in a refugee camp in the Philippines, where they awaited entry to the United States, having been sponsored by an uncle and aunt who had also already sponsored Dr. Au’s oldest sister. Dr. Au’s father had to wait 20 more years before he could come and be reunited with the family.