Anyone who hears her life story — escaping to America from her native Vietnam as a teen, attending and graduating from college and medical school with a limited understanding of English, managing a successful 20-year career as a gastroenterologist — would agree that Tuanh “Ann” Tonnu, MD ’90, is an inspiration.
But Dr. Tonnu believes that the help and guidance she received from her uncle, at a critical time in her life, is the real inspirational story. And that is why she decided to establish the Ton That Chieu, MD Endowed Scholarship in 2015 in his name. The scholarship will support medical students at Maryland who have demonstrated academic achievement and financial need.
“He supported and encouraged me to become a doctor, which was a dream I wanted to achieve when I came to the United States,” Dr. Tonnu says. “Creating this scholarship is my way of continuing the circle of generosity.”
Coming to America
When Dr. Tonnu fled Vietnam, shortly after the Communist takeover of Saigon, she was 14. Without their parents, who were forced to stay behind, Dr. Tonnu and her two siblings first reached Hong Kong, where they were placed in a refugee camp and worked in a local factory. Eventually, when the US government recognized Vietnamese boat people as political refugees, they made their way to America to live with an uncle, Dr. Chieu, who was finishing his residency for pathology at the University of Oklahoma. In 1979, he took his newly extended family to live in Maryland.
Despite having to adjust to her new surroundings, including learning a new language, Dr. Tonnu excelled. Upon graduation from Largo High School, where she delivered the salutary address, Dr. Tonnu attended the nearby University of Maryland at College Park, majoring in chemistry and graduating magna cum laude. She then became the first of several family members to attend the University of Maryland School of Medicine; her brother and three cousins also are graduates.
Dr. Tonnu says that, although she applied to other medical schools, continuing her studies at her alma mater was a natural fit.
‘It was home’
“I chose the University of Maryland because it was home to me,” she recalls. “Living in an urban environment was challenging, but I had a very positive experience overall.”
She also admits that medical school itself presented some additional challenges.
“I had to learn a new language,” she says. “Although my English was pretty good by the time I got to college, I discovered in med school that medicine is another language altogether.”
After earning her degree in gastroenterology in 1990, Dr. Tonnu went on to complete her fellowship and residency at George Washington University. She settled in the Gaithersburg, Md., area and launched her private practice in 1997.
An ‘invaluable’ inspiration
Dr. Tonnu says her uncle’s life story is equally as extraordinary as her own. A graduate of Saigon Medical School, Dr. Ton That Chieu served as a surgeon for Vietnam’s military hospital and a professor at the Hue Medical School in Vietnam. He was a visiting fellow for the department of Pathology at the University of Oklahoma, in 1975, when the fall of South Vietnam occurred. He chose to remain in Oklahoma City, completed his residency, and helped his extended family settle in the US. Eventually he moved to Maryland to provide medical services as a family practitioner to a large Vietnamese refugee community.
Dr. Tonnu says that the selflessness and generosity shown by her uncle, who performs charity work to help end poverty and illiteracy in Vietnam, in addition to offering his medical services, has served as a lifelong inspiration to her and others.
“His guidance throughout my medical training, when I started my practice, and beyond have been invaluable to me,” says Dr. Tonnu, whose own charitable work includes supporting such organizations as Doctors Without Borders and initiating a scholarship fund for nursing students in Central Vietnam.
Time to give back
Dr. Tonnu says she has reached a point in her career where she feels “financially stable,” so the timing was right to support the future of medicine in Maryland. She hopes the Ton That Chieu, MD Endowed Scholarship will inspire others in the way her uncle once inspired her.
“I got a lot of support to become who I am today, and it is time for me to give back and help others in the same way,” she says. “The amount I’m donating might not be significant, but I hope whoever gets it will make a big impact.”
The establishment of named endowments, like the one started by Dr. Tonnu, which are designed to help reduce the overall economic burden of medical education, are welcome news to both students and residents, who are often influenced in their career choice by the amount of debt they carry.
In an effort to attract new scholarship gifts, a matching gift program was formally launched in 2013. Through December 2015, the University of Maryland Baltimore Foundation, Inc., will match 1:2 (or $0.50 for each dollar) any gift to establish a new endowed scholarship fund. Dr. Tonnu’s scholarship fund will benefit from this program, boosting the principal investment and amplifying the impact of her gift.
If you would like to learn more about making a gift to support a named scholarship fund or other endowment, contact Darren Parker, Assistant Dean for Development, at 410-706-6870.