Dang surmounts travails for special education teaching

Peter Dang is interested in helping children through special education teaching. As a one-time special ed student himself, Dang said he understands first-hand the challenges his students face.
Peter Dang is interested in helping children through special education teaching. As a one-time special ed student himself, Dang said he understands first-hand the challenges his students face.
Peter Dang is interested in helping children through special education teaching. As a one-time special ed student himself, Dang said he understands first-hand the challenges his students face. Photo By: Peter Dang

Peter Dang ’14 is hoping to take what he learned first-hand and put his diploma to good use helping children with special needs.

Dang grew interested in special education his sophomore year of college, after an internship at Humanities Prep, an alternative school, and taking an intro course on the subject.

“I initially came to Vassar for a Biology major,” Dang recounted. “Japanese was just a side thing, but I fell in love with the language.” He later discovered senior year that he had enough credits for an Education major.

While Dang found his passion for teaching in college, he has had personal experience in special ed growing up as a kid with ADHD and speaking Vietnamese as his first language.

“I had really good memories of being in special education, and I never really felt ‘looked down’ upon.” said Dang. “I remember my teachers had really strong, powerful personalities. What I really remember specifically about my special education teachers is that they did it with heart.”

After his time with special education, Dang said that he personally could not work for a business whose sole purpose is profit. “I can only imagine myself working in education, where everything you’re doing, you do it from the heart. You put your spirit into it,” he said.

Unfortunately, while interning and teaching others, Dang developed cataracts in his right eye, and poor eyesight in both eyes. He had been sleeping outside for many days, in the park or the in the subway over the summer, but it could also have been hereditary; his mother got cataracts in her fifties.

Despite Dang’s ADHD, which causes him to reread the same article for hours, and cataracts, he is still able to complete his work. He said, “I have a lot of free time this semester. I only have one traditionally academic class, then two senior theses, and two internships.”

His time at Vassar has taught him innovative methods of approaching the classroom. In his final year, he’s taking a 300-level Adolescent Literacy course taught by Assistant Professor of Education Erin McCloskey.

“The idea of literacy isn’t just being able to move your eyes through a book and understand text. It’s the ability to produce podcasts, to make music, to speak in front of others, the ability to represent your ideas visually,” he said.

Dang hopes to use such ideas to teach special education and aid students in better expressing themselves. He said, “I want to help students that are labeled as different, and I feel that [despite] learning disabilities that apparently are said to hold people back, [such people] actually have a lot of potential.”

As one of his many past internships, Dang has worked with students learning English as a second language at Poughkeepsie High School, providing emotional support as someone who has dealt with the same challenge.

After his younger brother, Jimmy, was admitted to Connecticut College in 2010, Dang’s parents moved from the Bronx back to Vietnam after decades of absence. Although Dang understands his parents moved back for financial and language barrier reasons, he was left without a consistent home.

Without anywhere to stay, Dang  spent his college summers interning in New York City, and then crashing at a friend’s home in the Bronx or even outdoors.

Dang said, “Many people don’t appreciate the fact that they have a home to go back to. [My parents] didn’t give me any money for food; they expected me to live with friends,” he said. “Honestly, if me and Jimmy didn’t have our colleges, we would be on the streets.”

Dang was left to find friends to split rent with and often had to crash at people’s homes in the Bronx. “I basically freeloaded off people, one way or another. There were some days where I literally slept on the street,” he said, adding that he could have stayed at Vassar over the summers, if not for his internships at the STEM-based Master Program at Lehman College and Humanities Prep.

Now weeks from graduating, Dang makes the 50-minute trek from Vassar to the train station every day on foot to reach his New York City internship for Japan Society to save the six dollar taxi cab fee.

For Japan Society, he translates information to make grants from the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund and research on Japanese organizations. He is also interning at The Fountains at Milbrook, where he teaches a class on Japanese language and culture.

Partly out of his love for the Japanese anime culture, and partly out of a love for the language, Dang decided to major in Japanese and spent his junior year abroad in Japan, helping earthquake and tsunami victims rehabilitate.

His work has helped people across oceans.

As a self-proclaimed otaku, Japanese for a homebody obsessed with Japanese animations, since the fifth grade Dang has spent three thousand dollars that he earned from taking AP exams in the New York City REACH program on anime trading cards.

Dang said that his junior year abroad was his favorite part of his experiences attending Vassar.

He shared that after graduation, he would like to be an ambassador between nations. He said, “I want to go back to Japan and, through education, be the connecting bridge between the United States, Vietnam and Japan.”

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