Why I DEI: Dr. Carolee Tran

Seven questions with Vietnamese refugee, psychologist, mental health advocate and DEI champion

As a Vietnamese refugee and a survivor of sexual abuse, Dr. Carolee Tran is passionate about helping and empowering survivors of various traumas to heal, speak their truths and live deeply meaningful and authentic lives. 

Woman stands wearing a red coat and black pants
Carolee Tran

She is an associate professor of psychology at the UC Davis School of Medicine, author of the book "The Gifts of Adversity," and a national speaker, trainer, consultant and activist on issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion, mindfulness-based techniques, refugee mental health, and survivors of abuse and war. She is also said to be the first Vietnamese woman to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in America. 

Tran works with organizations, communities and systems to combat abuse and promote race and social justice. She received her bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley, a master’s and doctorate from Boston University, and completed her internship at Harvard Medical School. She has a private practice in Sacramento, California. We were fortunate enough to have a chance to talk with Dr. Tran and ask her a few questions. 

1.  You have a powerful story as a refugee and a survivor of sexual trauma. What gave you the strength or inspired you to share your story?

A: The reason I decided to share my story is to help other people. As a psychologist and someone who is fairly private, when I was thinking about writing the book, my colleagues were worried about how sharing my sexual abuse history might negatively impact my work with clients and that I might jeopardize my career if I revealed too much of myself. I thought long and hard about their concerns. But then I decided that I didn’t want to live my life in fear. If my story could help just one person, it would be worth it. In the process of writing my book, I learned that it was liberating and empowering to be able to speak my truth and help others. I’m grateful to learn that telling my story has inspired many survivors to tell their truth and get help to heal from their traumas. Additionally, it has actually enhanced my work with clients in many positive ways.     

2. What role do you think storytelling has in the DEI space?

A: Oh, it’s huge! Because you know what, DEI issues are inherently traumas that society, structural racism, implicit biases, micro-aggressions, homophobia and history have inflicted on us. Why do we deal with DEI issues? It is because all these forms of oppression have impacted the quality of life for our brothers and sisters who have been harmed in some way. In the same way that therapy can help, when we can voice and make space for our stories and have others bear witness to them, this allows us to heal and promotes clear action to combat all forms of oppression. The storytelling also allows the survivors who have been harmed to feel empowered, seen and heard. So the narratives are so important for acknowledging the reasons DEI work needs to be done and to have great clarity in how to go about doing the DEI work.  

3.  The title of your book is “Gifts of Adversity.” Can you share how you can see the adversities of your life as a gift? 

A: Ah, yes. This is very good question. The gifts of adversity, are not the adversities themselves; but, it is what we learn about ourselves from having gone through adversities. Meaning, in my case and many of my clients, through the adversities they learn that they are resilient, they are strong, and they can bear witness to what happened to them or others that were harmful. So, it is by going through those adversities that we learn about our courage and inner strength. Those are the gifts of our adversity. Not the traumas, but what we gain in terms of our self-understanding. To know deep in our heart that we are still here, we’re thriving, we’re warriors and that we are strong and resilient. In some cases, it’s also about turning our adversities into something beautiful that can be helpful to others. Many survivors move on to pursue occupations and/or do advocacy work that help others to overcome adversities. 

The gifts of adversity book cover.
 4.  Coming to America as a refugee and working so hard to earn your doctorate degree and now being an associate professor, what are you most proud of?

A: I’m proud of being able to accompany my clients on their journeys of healing and helping them to maximize the joy and meaning in their lives. To me, it is such an honor to be able to give what I've been given–that is my own journey with my therapist– and I can now pay that forward. That is a great honor to be let into people’s lives in a deep and meaningful way, and to see people get better. That is so beautiful and amazing! I am grateful for that and I am really proud of that. 

I’m also proud to be a mother to my two adult daughters- Carina and Mika. They are strong, intelligent and thoughtful women who are shakers and movers in their own right. I’m so grateful to be their mother. I was a quadriplegic as a child. When I was 6 months old, I was struck by polio and I was paralyzed from the neck down. I didn’t learn how to walk until I was 3 years old. So being able to be a mother is huge and has been a tremendous gift!

I am proud of all the accomplishments you mentioned; but, for me, it is more about how I am able to touch people’s lives that’s most important to me and I’m most proud of. 

5. Where does your passion for your work in psychology come from? 

A: It comes from multiple places: my own personal experience as a refugee and as a survivor of sexual trauma. Also, from the fields of feminist, decolonized, and liberation psychology. In a lot of our training as psychologists, the focus is very Eurocentric and defines pathology and suffering from an individualistic and/or familial perspective. It did not teach us to examine how social, cultural, community, historical, political forces, structural racism, micro-aggressions, homophobia sexism, and other forms of oppression impact people’s health, mental health and well-being. For me, as a psychologist, it's important to see people from all these contexts and perspectives in order to promote and maximize their health and well-being. Healing and health is not just the absence of pathology; but also. the ability to affirm, accept and take pride in all of who we are and feel gratitude for the systems, people and community that have formed and supported us. 

Another area that impacts my work is mindfulness meditation. I took a Buddhist psychology course as an undergraduate and it profoundly transformed my life. It was actually the catalyst that helped me to recognize that I was being sexually abused and gave me the clarity to get out of the relationship. Since then, I’ve been trained and influenced by some of the most well-known meditation teachers in the country. Mindfulness meditation has been so helpful to me that I often integrate it into my work with clients.  

6.  In thinking about May being Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, why do you think it is important to have these months of acknowledgement?

A: I see these months of awareness as opportunities to highlight and celebrate the richness of our cultures and give the clear message that mental health is as important as physical health. I just did an interview with Channel 13 because this is AAPI month and mental health awareness month. I was happy to do the interview because this is an area I’m passionate about and want to get the word out about – the importance of therapy and not to let stigma stop us from being able to get the help that we need, especially for those of us that come from cultures that really stigmatize therapy. So, I see this as an important part of my work. Not just the one-on-one therapy with clients, but also to be able to do DEI or anti-Asian hate talks or trainings or interviews so I can reach a larger audience to help more people.

7.  What inspires you to work in diversity, equity and inclusion at UC Davis? Why do you DEI?

A: I see myself not only as a psychologist but also an activist and advocate through the lens of feminist, decolonized and liberation psychology. The DEI perspective is inherent in all the contexts that I work in- whether it’s as a therapist, a consultant, professor, supervisor, writer. And so that’s why I do what I do. It’s one of the small ways I can make a change in the world – DEI work is one of those places where I can promote race and social justice. 

I DEI because I see it as a crucial part of the health of our nation and its citizens. It’s important for all of us to be knowledgeable about DEI issues if we are to interact with one another in a way that is truly respectful, embracing, and celebrating people's contributions and differences. I believe that at the end of the day, it is our humanity, our activism, and our basic kindness toward one another that can be the most powerful medicine to heal our deepest wounds and make our world a better place!

In this KVIE interview, Carolee Tran shares the story about her and her family's harrowing journey of leaving Vietnam when Saigon fell. The interview was aired in 2017 in concert with Ken Burn's documentary, The Vietnam War.