By Jim Tortolano
She was born stateless in a refugee camp in Hong Kong. When her family was able to come to America, they had to share a mattress in a one-bedroom apartment in Stanton that housed three other families.
Growing up in a gritty neighborhood with graffiti and the occasional crack of gunfire, she was able to rise above that and get a scholarship to Yale University, where she studied anthropology and from there to John Hopkins to study international relations.
When she returned to Stanton with a desire to give back to her community, she was turned down twice when she applied for city commissions. Finally, on the third time she was chosen.
“I guess they felt ‘she seems desperate enough,’” said Hong Alyce Van, 34, Stanton’s newest city council member, with a laugh. After a short stint on the planning commission she was selected to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Al Ethans.
“Everywhere I go I get rejected. I guess I got lucky this time.”
Van – who uses her middle name as her first name – is a true daughter of the city of 40,000 people. She’s lived there since she was 2 years old, attended local schools and graduated from Rancho Alamitos High School in 2002.
“I was a total nerd, all the Asian stereotypes, a really shy introverted nerdy kid,” she said of her high school days. She was involved, though, in playing cello and competing on the academic decathlon team. A stellar student, she was the valedictorian of her graduating class, which helped propel her – with her grades and monster SAT scores – to an Ivy League college.
“In high school, there’s puberty and all these things that can make it difficult to fit in. There are all these identity issues,” she said. “I knew I really liked books, but all the cool kids are cheerleaders.
“At Yale it was completely different. Everyone was fascinating and having philosophical conversations at 3 a.m. Aside from socioeconomic issues, I felt way more at home there.”
After Yale and Johns Hopkins, she was back in Orange County to pursue a career in raising her son, Benjamin. “I am a proud stay-at-home mom,” she said. “He keeps me busy. I bought the house right next to the one I grew up in; my parents are right next door. My sister has a house right across the street. From the Vietnamese mentality, it really does take a village. Everyone wants to be involved.”
Van wanted involvement that extended beyond her home street. “I knew I wanted to live in a city I wanted to raise my kids in,” said Van. “I wanted my son to buy a home on my street. I felt I wanted my say in where our city is going.”
Her involvement started in the Citizen’s Academy that Stanton has to encourage civic involvement. At the urging of councilmembers Ethans and Brian Donahue, she applied – without much initial success – for city commissions. When that didn’t happen, she was steered to the Stanton Community Foundation, where she helped found SMART – Summer Math Academy and Resource Training.
“I remember growing up [that] tons of kids were dropping out of high school, tons of kids leaving high school not knowing what to do with their lives, being directionless and lost. What can we do for these kids?” she wondered.
“We have graffiti in our neighborhood, we have gang issues. I thought if we can get these kids early on, maybe we can prevent them from joining these other organizations that they might feel is home.”
The remedy chosen might seem counterintuitive. “Studies show that kids who do poorly in math are more likely to join gangs and engage in violence. It’s very odd, but that’s what the data shows,” she said.
SMART is an intensive math camp for youth coming out of intermediate schools in the summer before high school, typically 14 years old. “Those are prime gang recruiting ages,” she said. So far, the program has been a success, she feels and it will be expanded from one school – Magnolia High – to Western and Rancho Alamitos.
“One student said ‘I like math now’ and another ‘I think I might want to go to college.’”
Now she’s in a position to affect the lives of all in the city. Her big issues?
“Homelessness is a huge one,” she said. “We need to make residents feel safe enough to go to the parks. We need to be doing everything we can within the law to help homeless folks but at the same time need to make sure that rules are followed.”
She wants to encourage what she calls “civic engagement,” a task she knows is complicated by several factors. “Stanton has a very interesting demographic,” she said. “Forty percent are foreign born, a lot of them don’t speak English or not as a first language. We have a lot of young people, so we need to be more active, getting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.”
Van sees a lot of potential for Stanton and is especially excited by the development – now under construction – along Beach Boulevard north of Garden Grove Boulevard.
The former Village Center will have condos in the northern two-thirds, and retail and eateries on the southern third. The project, with a market hall and popular fast food outlets Raising Cain’s and In N Out, will “create a population influx which can really change the demographic of Stanton.”
It will help repair the city’s image, too, she said. Crime is down and it’s not a bad place to live and work. “Growing up I remember the neighborhood” – north of City Hall – “being really rough. Now I walk out my door and don’t even lock it.”
A safer, hipper Stanton is the city she wants to live in with husband Timo Van Kissing, and son Benjamin. Now she has the chance to make the dreams of a once-poor refugee come true for her big village.