Q&A: From refugee camp to public health educator: Dr. Chia Thao shares her journey

May 17, 2024 /

For the first fourteen years of her life, Dr. Chia Thao was born and raised in a refugee camp in Thailand before she and her family came to the Central Valley. 

Dr. Thao earned her PhD at UC Merced and is currently teaching at Cal State Bakersfield (CSUB) and finishing up her second year working with CSUB’s Public Health program. Overall Dr. Thao has worked in Public Health education for over 10 years in the Central Valley. Her father was a CNA when they came to the States but she was first introduced to the idea of going into Public Health by one of her professors (who she still keeps in touch with today) at CSU Fresno. 

Dr. Thao spoke with Kern Sol News (KSN) for Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) to share more about her story. 

Responses have been edited for brevity.

Kern Sol News: What does AAPI month mean to you?

Dr. Thao: I think that AAPI is an important acknowledgement in our community. It’s an important part of this nation, our diversity is worth celebrating, our contribution to this country and just being who we are. I’m excited to celebrate but also [honored] that others also celebrate this month with us. 

KSN: I read in a past article of yours that you’re from Thailand and you grew up in a refugee camp. Can you tell me more about that? 

Dr. Thao: My parents are from Laos. I don’t know if you heard of the Hmong community but our origins can be traced back to China. But [we] migrated to Laos during the Vietnam War. When the Hmong were recruited to fight alongside the American soldiers and after the war itself. Laos then were subject to persecution because we were helping the other hand and the communists took over Vietnam and Laos. So we fled our home countries of Laos and became political refugees in Thailand where I was born and raised for 14 years. We resettled in the U.S. through the Refugee Resettlement Program and we came to the Central Valley [Fresno] where we have some family here and I’ve been here since. 

KSN: Did you always know what you wanted to be when you were older? Did you have any influences? 

Dr. Thao: I would say no because as a child of a refugee, we don’t see anything other than just being in a very closed and capped space where you can’t go outside of the boundary of where you’re at. I didn’t have [any] educational training until we came to the U. S. In high school, I went to a migrant education program– I was fortunate to be a part of that. 

My dad worked in inpatient care– so that was the only thing that I saw [growing up]. I graduated and I got into the Certified Nurse Assistance program and realized that maybe I’m not good with inpatient care.

I didn’t know what else to do. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was fortunate to be accepted to Fresno State and be the first of my family to ever pursue higher education in a four-year institution. I met a professor who said she was in public health and I [was] like what is that? That was the first time I was relearning about other options besides nursing. 

KSN: What are some of the things you’re most proud of that you accomplished?  

Dr. Thao: I think it’s to be able to give back to my community. And I say giving back means that now I have the skill that I have– to go back and support my community in different capacities. I actively volunteer with local community organizations and also continue to research to better understand the community and their needs. 

My [current] research focuses on pesticide exposure and poor health outcomes, particularly among our small-scale Southeast Asian farmers. I think my research is what I’m proud of. 

Through my learning, I was able to collect data and present my findings to both the community and also at the state and in conferences. I think those are some of my most prominent movements. It’s knowing that my work matters and that it makes a difference. 

KSN: What does working for CSUB Public Health mean to you? And how is the community there?

Dr. Thao: It is such an honor to be a part of the CSUB community because I was able to be in a space where I could continue to empower other students to go on and make a difference in the lives of their community or the people that they serve. Especially in the kind of practice of public health where we train our students to be petitioners in the community to be scholars and the work of public health. And I’m just super excited that CSUB has a space for me to put out my energy to inform by working or teaching students to just work with the community. I’m appreciative of the space that the campus offers me to ground my work, but then also to support me in my work.

KSN: What’s the best advice that you give out to your students? 

Dr. Thao: I think it’s important for students to realize that they could use the academic space to not only advance their learning but also connect back to their community. In the spirit of the celebrations of AAPI month, I just want to encourage every student to continue to embrace their identity. Because I think that knowing that you have a whole community or heritage that is unique to you and your cultural background. It doesn’t matter who you are but I think that oftentimes in academic spaces where it could be challenging, sometimes it could be lonely. Your journey is important. You’re carrying your whole community with you and whether it doesn’t matter what race you are, you are a part of your community. You are representing your whole community. I think it’s important for students to just embrace that identity in this academic space. 

Haley Duval

Haley is a reporter for Kern Sol News since December of 2023. She was born and raised in East Bakersfield and went to Foothill High School. Haley has AA in Journalism from Bakersfield College. When Haley is not reporting, she enjoys writing poetry, reading, traveling and spending time with friends and family. She can be reach at haley@southkernsol.org.