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From Refugee to PharmD: Dr. Ashleigh-Anne Au and Her Family Live the American Dream


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. 

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High Achiever 

Dr. Au, her middle sister, and their mother arrived in America as refugees, with not much more than the shirts on their backs. “The experience of being a refugee really pushed my sister and me,” recalls Dr. Au. “Any number of terrible things could have happened to us on that boat if we had lost our mother. But we’re still here for a reason, so we pushed hard to achieve at every point in our lives.” For Dr. Au, this meant taking college courses while still in high school, working two jobs when she wasn’t already helping her seamstress mother, playing volleyball and swimming and never bringing home anything less than an ‘A.’ Eventually she was accepted into one of the top pharmacy schools in the nation at Purdue University and soon after began a successful career as a retail pharmacist at Walgreens. 

There she prided herself on her warmth and hospitality with patients, always going the extra mile to communicate with them about the details of their medications and making sure their needs were met. However, as a pharmacist who loved spending time with patients and educating them, she found herself, after 11 years, beginning to feel that she had grown stagnant — and wondering what new challenge she could rise to achieve. 

A Leap of Faith 

With the full support of her husband James, she decided to take a leap of faith and accept a post as an Assistant Professor at the new College of Pharmacy at Marshall B. Ketchum University. As a first-time professor, she has thrown herself into educating future pharmacists with the same warmth and enthusiasm with which she always met her patients. So far, she has reveled in the work of introducing students to a model of education that focuses on the learning process. “I had a student come to me at the end of a course who said, ‘Your class made a world of difference to me,’” says Dr. Au. “I told her, ‘You have no idea what that means to me!’ My biggest challenge now as an educator is the responsibility that comes with being recognized with the Teacher of the Year honor. It’s the responsibility to challenge my students and myself to go beyond our comfort zones.” 

For Dr. Au, this entails embracing a passion of hers that aligns powerfully with the guiding mission of MBKU: interprofessional education, and the collaborative approach to health care practiced at Ketchum Health. Dr. Au has found at MBKU an academic position that puts her right where she wants to be: working hard to achieve great things, thankful always for the privilege she’s been given to do so.  

The full Winter 2018 issue is available online. Read Now