Alumna who left war-torn Vietnam shares story of perseverance

Dec. 5, 2016

Mai Donohue

Mai Donohue speaks about her life during a recent visit to CCRI's Knight Campus. See more photos.

There are moments when CCRI alumna Mai Donohue seems overwhelmed by her own accomplishments.

Donohue was having one of those moments last week at Knight Campus in Warwick, where she paused while describing her journey from rural, war-torn Vietnam to the United States. She is an acclaimed author, public speaker, documentary subject and community leader. She is also a loving wife and dedicated mother whose first book, “Crossing the Bamboo Bridge – Memoirs of a Bad Luck Girl,” was released earlier this year to overwhelmingly positive reviews.

She was at CCRI to share her story and deliver a message to the school community: “I hope everyone never gives up, no matter how hard it is. Keep on going because you can’t quit,” Donohue said.

She arrived in the United States in the 1970s and, after raising seven children, enrolled at CCRI in the early 1990s.

As a child, she dreamed of getting an education when she took her relatives’ textbooks and used her fingers to draw answers in the dirt behind her house.

It was message that resonated with students such as Social Work major Jennifer Lee, who advocates for survivors of domestic violence.

“It became clear that this was not just about a woman who survived an abusive mother or husband, this was a woman who was able to overcome enormous barriers in a war-torn country and never forgot who she was, what she stood for and what she wanted,” Lee said. “Every choice she made in her life was true to herself and that in and of itself is certainly courageous and admirable.”

For Donohue, sharing her story is a way to give back to the first school to offer her a college education.

“Nobody accepted me at the time. No one was willing to open the door for me, but CCRI wanted to help,” Donohue said.

Still, the prospect of college coursework seemed daunting to Donohue, who had only recently received her GED® credential.

“I told the adviser at CCRI, ‘I don’t belong here.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, you haven’t even started yet and you already quit,’” Donohue said.

Donohue eventually enrolled and, over the course of seven years, excelled in the classroom before graduating in 1997 with an associate degree in General Studies.

“It wasn’t until watching my mom go through her graduation from CCRI that I realized we were in a very different situation, that this was a very different experience for our family,” said Donohue’s daughter, Maura Donohue, in a 2009 PBS documentary titled, “Mai: A Lesson In Courage, Passion, and Hope.”

Her time at CCRI paved the way for future successes at the University of Rhode Island, where she graduated cum laude in 2002.

“Mai’s graduations were triumphs, triumphs of the spirit,” said her husband, Brian Donohue.

One interaction Donohue had as a student at CCRI would change the trajectory of her life’s work.

It was in an English course where students were asked to write a one-page essay about their lives. For Donohue, whose upbringing was difficult to revisit, the assignment was daunting. She was too ashamed of her past to write the essay, she said.

“For three weeks, every day I came in and said, ‘I can’t write this,’” Donohue said. Eventually, Donohue caved, but only after being told she would fail the course if she didn’t write the essay.

“This is when the light went on and I thought maybe I could write a book,” Donohue said.

Thus began the 25-year process of writing, “Crossing the Bamboo Bridge – Memoirs of a Bad Luck Girl,” in which Donohue shares her inspirational life story of poverty rebellion and war. The memoir focuses on her childhood and Vietnam and her life up until she married.

The book has been a huge success, prompting invites to book clubs and book signing around Rhode Island and earning Donohue an invite to “The Rhode Show” to promote her story.

“When the book first arrived I ran around the house and screamed to myself,” she said. “I felt so much happiness but I was scared because now my life is an open book. How would people receive what I shared in my life story?”

Now, Donohue wants to write a second book focusing on her life in the United States. She has raised seven children and is retired from her job in the Alternative Learning Program at Barrington High School. She is busy with her charitable work and her writing, but she still stays connected to CCRI.

“I learned everything here,” she said. The school taught her how to think critically, study at a college level and write essays, Donohue said.

“CCRI gave me everything, and so I like to give back,” Donohue said. “Life is a long journey and the choices we make are our own. Education is very important, we must have education.  Don’t leave it to someone else to make your decisions for you.” 

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Last Updated: 12/7/16