Alaska Airlines aspiring pilot embraces journey of reclaiming her Vietnamese name & heritage

Photos & Video by Ingrid Barrentine

My parents didn’t name me Candace. My real Vietnamese name is Nhung (pronounced ñūng). It means velvet and symbolizes wealth and prosperity, a future my parents dreamed for me.  

That same dream drove them to leave their homeland at nearly 50 years old with six children. They wanted a brighter and more prosperous future for us, even if they would struggle to survive in a foreign land and rebuild their lives from nothing.  

As an immigrant and daughter of refugees, I often grappled with the mixed identities that came with being transplanted to the United States. I grew up on free school lunches, donated clothing, and Saturday mornings in line at the food bank or social security office. In the evenings, we enjoyed home-cooked family dinners with a background of Vietnamese opera and karaoke.  

March 1996 — My family’s first photo in America after landing in San Francisco.

At school, I hid these parts of myself because most children my age were busy feeding their Tamagotchis or listening to the newest hits on CD players. I spent most of my school days hiding my love for Vietnamese music, taking recess in teachers’ rooms, and feeling isolated from my peers. That isolation was compounded by the shame and embarrassment of being unable to recognize my name when my teachers and peers spoke it.  

It wasn’t until after high school I realized the butchered pronunciations of my name and the “harmless” jokes likening my name to the sound of a lightsaber had eroded my confidence over the years. I wasn’t shy, but I dreaded meeting new people and explaining in vain how to pronounce my name. I wasn’t afraid of speaking up in class, but I feared having to answer when called by a name I didn’t recognize. I wasn’t ashamed of my name, but I resented the mispronunciations and missed opportunities that resulted from it.  

The summer before college, I decided to change that. With the help of my best friend, I chose the name Candace. Although the name has many meanings (title for a queen, innocence, purity), for me, it symbolized a pivotal step in my journey to redefine my cultural identity and find my sense of belonging in American society.  

April 2012 — Performing a traditional Vietnamese ribbon dance I co-choreographed for CalVSA’s annual culture show.

Equipped with a new name and a different community, I felt a renewed sense of confidence. I joined the Vietnamese Student Association (CalVSA) leadership, took classes I never dared to – like acting and spoken word, performed Vietnamese dances on a world-renowned stage, and delivered a commencement speech at my Southeast Asian graduation ceremony. During this journey, I often questioned my decision as others saw my name change as white-washing my ethnicity and forsaking my parents’ dream for me. After much reflection, I decided changing my name was not a rejection of my roots. Instead, it was the catalyst and confidence I needed to display my love for my culture unabashedly. 

I’m particularly grateful my journey to find a sense of belonging led me to Alaska Airlines. It’s a company that not only values diversity and inclusivity, but truly embodies it. During my first month on the job, I was invited to participate in the SF Chinese New Year Parade, where Alaska was the title sponsor. 

Throughout the month and year, Alaska highlighted Lunar New Year and its commitment to the Asian community through internal and external events and stories, and created opportunities where employees like me were solicited to provide feedback. My third-grade self who sat in shame during school lunches would have never guessed one day I’d be in a position not only to embrace my Vietnamese culture, but use my experience as expertise that informs policies, events, and campaigns to benefit colleagues, guests, and the community at large.  

Now, when a colleague gets in my car, I’m not embarrassed they’ll be greeted by Vietnamese music; during work discussions, I proudly admit to my lack of knowledge of American movies, artists, and top hits; at the office, I readily code switch to Vietnamese to connect with colleagues and customers; and all my business cards and social accounts proudly bear my new full name, accents and all – Candace Mỹ Nhung Lê.  

Editor’s note: When Candace first wrote this story, she was working on the public affairs team for Alaska Airlines. Last year, she followed her dream to become a pilot and applied for Alaska’s Ascend Pilot Academy, a partnership with Hillsboro Aero Academy.

Candace received her private pilot’s license in August 2023 and just became instrument rated this week (instrument rated means she can fly in low visibility by reference only to the aircraft instruments). She will be working on her commercial license with a stipend from the Ascend program.  Learn more about the Ascend Pilot Academy here. 

“I Am …” at Alaska Airlines

Our “I Am…” Campaign kicked off in January to celebrate Heritage Months and the diversity of our employees. Keep an eye out for the “I Am…” logo throughout the year to read their inspiring stories.

We’re sharing Candace’s story in honor of Lunar New Year, which starts February 10. Alaska Airlines is also a proud sponsor of the Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco, and we’re looking forward to celebrating the Year of the Dragon with our guests and employees!