Paying it forward – a mentor’s story

Lisa Phung was one of thousands of refugees who fled Communist Vietnam in the early 1980s. Only three years old when her father was captured by the government for  ‘re-education’, she escaped by boat with her mother and sister, before being rescued at sea 15 days later and transferred to a refugee camp in Hong Kong. They arrived in Australia three years later with only the clothes they were wearing and unable to speak a word of English.

Like many Vietnamese refugees at the time, the family settled in Western Sydney where Lisa grew up and attended Bankstown Girls High. She then went on to study a Bachelor of Commerce at UNSW and after graduation, began work with CBA where she’s worked for the last 18 years.

She reflects it was a difficult and confusing time – growing up in a western environment but bound by the strict cultural values that were enforced at home. The parents in her community, often working long hours as factory workers, conditioned their children to study hard, achieve and become doctors, lawyers and engineers.

‘There was no choice – study and education was paramount. Back then, Vietnamese teenagers either grew up to be very obedient, or rebel and become gangsters’, she says. ‘There was little room for creativity and many suffered mental health issues from the pressure.’

Lisa now has two children of her own, who she says already benefit from a far more privileged upbringing. Determined that they also grow up understanding their heritage, sacrifices made and the importance of giving back, she is grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution through volunteering and mentoring at CBA.

Her first opportunity was InterAct, which allowed her to share her story with other refugees and newly-arrived migrant students. She was then involved in the joint CBA-Cabramatta High School program, Your Face Your Story and more recently she’s taken part in two Focus programs, one of which was with her alma mater, Bankstown Girls.

‘I connected with the Bankstown girls straight away, easily reflecting on my own life experiences. It’s hard adjusting to a country with different cultural values – I reminded them if they don’t get in to a course first go, they’re not a failure, and that there are many different pathways to get them where they want to go.’

Appreciative of the opportunities she’s been given, Lisa has made a conscious decision to continue her mentoring work as an important link from one generation to the next. ‘The girls I’m mentoring today will be the mentors for my daughter’s generation’, she says. ‘I’ve been lucky. It’s important to me to give back and pay it forward’.

Mentors play a crucial role in ABCN’s ability to make an impact in disadvantaged education. If you have a mentoring story that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact Amy Weaver at ABCN at

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