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A Dream Fulfilled and Shared

Seton Hall gave Thomas Tran ’78 the chance for a college education nearly 50 years ago. Now he’s helping others get theirs.

By Ruth Zamoyta

It was 1975, seven days before the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. From his home in Saigon, Tom Tran’s parents drove the 18-year-old to the airport and left him with a command: “Just follow everybody else.” There were thousands of people in the airport, trying to escape the impending attack by the Vietcong.

Thanks to a cousin who had emigrated and got his graduate degree in electrical engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Tran had financial sponsorship. He boarded a C-130 and landed in Guam and then the U.S. Marine Corps Camp Pendleton. He was en route to New Jersey, where his cousin was waiting.

“Did I know anything about New Jersey? The honest answer is zero,” Tran recalls. “I had no money, no English and only two pieces of clothes.”

But he also had gumption — and a dream. In Vietnam he had enrolled in business school to avoid the draft, determined to one day become a chief financial officer. He was taking a chance coming to America, and he needed others to take a chance on him.

Tran’s cousin had a friend who had studied at Seton Hall and recommended it.

Tran spoke to the University’s international student adviser, Patrick Kennedy. “He asked me, do you have any SATs? I said, no. I can’t even prove that I finished high school. Kennedy said, we’ll let you in, and you can either sink or swim.”

Tran not only swam; he soared out of troubled waters to build a successful career.

While at Seton Hall, Tran worked several part-time jobs: in warehouses, washing dishes at Chinese restaurants, bartending and working at Carvel, in order to pay for his single room in a house in Maplewood and then an apartment in Irvington. Determined to finish his program in three years, he took extra courses and summer classes, loading up 21 credits. He recorded his lectures so he could listen to them again at home, an English/French dictionary in hand, to make sure he understood what the professors were saying.

Somehow he found time to have fun, joining Alpha Kappa Psi, going to games in Walsh Gym and sneaking into a racquet club in Florham Park at midnight to play tennis with friends.

Though it’s been nearly 50 years, Tran remembers the Seton Hall professors who helped him secure positions in accounting firms and banks. With the help of one of them, he entered the training program at Chase Manhattan Bank, and realized he was going to make it.

After earning his M.B.A. at NYU, Tran found himself in a whole new industry: health care. Cigna saw promise in Tran and invested in him, moving him every two years through various roles in the company. After 13 years he had broad expertise in all facets of management.

Tran was then in a position to sponsor his family members who had remained in Vietnam, and he brought them to America.

He remained in health care until recently retiring (for the fourth time) from UpStream Healthcare. He reached the top, becoming chief financial officer of multiple organizations, including two Fortune 500 companies; he achieved his dreams and is now able to give other refugees, immigrants and students-in-need the same helping hand he received as a youth.

Tran decided to make a $500,000 endowed gift to help fund the RISE scholarship at Seton Hall, which benefits low-income students, first-generation students and students who use disability services. He had previously endowed a significant scholarship at the Stillman School of Business.

“Without Seton Hall I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now. I will always remember that.”

Photo by Darren Miles

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