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Picture of Michelle Layer Rahal with Minh Phuong.

Published September 17, 2019

Overcoming adversity leads to redemption

UB alumna shares story of a woman’s journey during the Vietnam War

Michelle Layer Rahal (EdM ’93, Elementary Education) wrote and published “Straining Forward” in 2018, which depicts the story of Minh Phuong, a Vietnamese girl who endured abuse, prison and torture during the Vietnam War to become the third Asian woman in America to be ordained a Presbyterian pastor. “I didn’t set out to write Minh Phuong’s story,” says Rahal. “I felt called to it, and sometimes we need to follow our gut.”

Rahal first heard of Minh Phuong’s ordeal during a church service one Sunday morning when Minh Phuong gave a five-minute testimony of where God showed up in her life. “I want to write your story” were the first words Rahal said to Minh Phuong. Years later, Minh Phuong’s story was told in the book, “Straining Forward,” which achieved a five-star rating from Readers’ Favorite and Amazon, and was a finalist in the Indie Excellence Book Awards. Rahal’s publisher, Xulon Press, also selected “Straining Forward” as one of its top books for 2018.

“This book provides a clear view of what life can be like for women and children during war and in a communist country,” says Rahal. “It highlights the plight of refugees in their most vulnerable status – a hot topic, to say the least, in light of the immigration issues faced by refugees in the U.S. and around the world today, as it offers hope to those who think life may not be worth living.”

Rahal’s goal in writing the book was to move people to action, such as caring for widows and orphans in their distress; inviting outsiders into their lives; helping immigrants acclimate to their new community; and developing a better understanding on the cost of war and the ramifications of turning a blind eye to suffering.

Before obtaining her master’s degree in education at UB, Rahal wanted to become an elementary school teacher, but GSE provided her with skills that went beyond the classroom. For several years, she had been working in assessment administration — first for Arlington Public Schools, then Fairfax County Public Schools — where she managed state and federal testing at all grade levels. “My favorite part of both jobs was writing the annual reports, newsletters or training materials,” says Rahal. “This was a wake-up call for me because prior to receiving my EdM, I had worked as a radio newscaster following leads. So I have to believe that writing stories is my true passion.”

After the publication of her first book, Rahal decided to incorporate as a writer and speaker. The name of her company is Straining Forward, LLC. She hopes to write another biography dealing with immigration, and she is also considering writing a play. “It’s never too late to start another career, as education and experience will lead to endless opportunities,” says Rahal. “After years of writing news copy, lesson plans, education articles and assessment reports, I finally published my first book at age 57. Needless to say I think I’ve finally found my niche.”

Tuesday News Tickers feature news briefs of the stories of the Graduate School of Education faculty, students and alumni who are engaged in their communities and making an impact through their hard work, dedication and research initiatives. If you have a story to share, please email us with the details for consideration as a future news feature.