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April 2024
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Taking the Stage

Multilingual member advocates for others through pageants and philanthropy.

By Shannon Dewey

Woman in black dress smiling while wearing sash and crown
Susan Vanderburgh

Susan Vanderburgh is fluent in five languages, runs her own nonprofit, and uses pageantry as a platform to speak up for those in need. She currently holds the title of Mrs. Elite Asia Universe—along with other designations like mom, wife, entrepreneur, law student, and ambassador.

Vanderburgh, who joined Toastmasters in 2022, resides in Southern California with her husband. Together they have five children, ages 12-19, five lucky dogs, and one spoiled chinchilla.

Born in Saigon toward the end of the Vietnam War, Vanderburgh was later moved to a refugee camp in Malaysia before her family immigrated to the United States. Growing up, she practiced Chinese customs in her household and spoke in her native language of Cantonese. She didn’t learn English until she was nine years old, but her lessons in language only increased from there.

Vanderburgh is now fluent in Cantonese, English, Spanish, Greek, and French. She also studied Japanese, Tibetan, Italian, Swahili, Tagalog, and Portuguese. She declares that foreign languages are a superpower, which could be attributed to her multicultural schooling in San Francisco, where she was surrounded by many diverse traditions and languages. Or it could also be the fact that her grandfather was fluent in 12 dialects of the Asian language, her father in eight, and her mother in five.

Vanderburgh often reflects on her parents’ courage leaving Vietnam and risking everything for a chance at a better life. Keep reading to learn how she paved her own path to the stage and where her desire to help others stems from.

Why did you join Toastmasters?

I originally looked into Toastmasters when I was working in San Francisco in the early 2000s. I visited a few club meetings during my lunch hour but couldn’t make it work with my schedule. Over the years, I naturally progressed into being a public speaker, from school elections to community and business meetings, to becoming the regional director of the Public Speakers Association. I finally joined Toastmasters in 2022 when I realized that I needed to be part of a group of people more like me (i.e., entrepreneurial, business-like, and willing to help others).

What do you like most about your club, Entrepreneur Toastmasters?

What I cherish most about our club is the diverse and dynamic membership. It is an online club, so we can dial in from anywhere. At one of our meetings, we had someone from Malaysia, where I had resided as a refugee, so it was interesting to meet someone from there. There is professional and constructive criticism offered. It’s the perfect club for me as a businessperson, speaker, and author.

Woman in shimmery blue dress and white sash holding crownSusan Vanderburgh

How did you get involved in pageants?

My favorite movie, Miss Congeniality, gives some insight into the world of pageants. I am still humored by the role that Sandra Bullock played because that reminded me very much of myself when I got started. I first applied because I wanted to honor my family and to gain recognition for my parents who were dedicated to making a positive impact without seeking the limelight.

In 2022, I joined the United International Elite Pageants program to connect with women like me, who are not afraid to follow their dreams.

From June 2016 to June 2020, my life was mostly devoted to being my husband’s caregiver [during his battle with kidney disease]. In 2021, I was struggling to get myself out of depression, so I reflected on my life to see what I’ve accomplished. While doing so, I found the Woman of Achievement Pageant. In my application, I described my educational accomplishments, what I have done for my community, and my efforts for my husband’s kidney search. As a result, I was accepted as a delegate.

My first pageant took place that year, competing with seasoned pageant veterans, holders of advanced degrees, entrepreneurs, authors, and speakers. I earned the title Mrs. Elite Inland Empire, and thought to myself, Not too shabby, since I was at their level of accomplishments.

In 2022, I joined the United International Elite Pageants program to connect with women like me, who are not afraid to follow their dreams. As Ms. California Elite, I served as an ambassador for the pageant system and had the title of Queen of Hearts, where I assisted other title holders with various community service projects. I also hold the permanent title of Mrs. California Ambassador FoRe Living Royal, with the choice of 12 platforms and a nonprofit to represent.

My newest title is Mrs. Elite Asia Universe for the upcoming Transcontinental Pageant (TCP) /Universe Pageants-Mrs. Universe, where I’ll be giving a speech about how my nonprofit work makes me a good match as the ambassador for the pageant.

Tell us how your nonprofit came to be.

When my husband was ill and on dialysis for his kidney disease, we had friends who could help us with tasks, but financially, we were on our own. I could call a charity to assist us with food, but there were other necessities that could not be covered.

As a result, my nonprofit, American Society of Community Benefits, was born out of necessity to take care of others. The primary mission of this organization is to provide housing for veterans, domestic abuse survivors, and youth transitioning from foster care. I knew this mission was huge and would require substantial sponsorships and public support. While we are working on creating housing, we are still providing the community assistance with food, clothing, medical expenses, and tuition throughout the year.

What drives your passion for helping others?

Perhaps it comes from the first act of philanthropy I witnessed. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, an anonymous benefactor sponsored my family’s relocation from a Malaysian refugee camp to the United States. Upon entering Philadelphia, our entire family was treated to a nice dinner at a stranger’s home. That was my first experience of someone helping me. I want to be able to give someone else that feeling. I also saw how my parents helped many people even when they were in need themselves.

How has Toastmasters helped you grow?

While attending speaking and business events, I often wondered how the people on stage became such great speakers. I soon realized that I was one of those people and looked upon as a leader.

The growth I’ve seen since joining Toastmasters is that I’ve learned to believe in myself. I’ve published two books and have a few more on the way. I started two talk shows: “The Susan Show,” which highlights business owners and how they are making a difference in their communities, and “Talk 2 Susan,” where I focus on current events. My fellow club members are very supportive of my endeavors—the craziness of “Susan’s world!”

Switching subjects—let’s talk about your experience in the legal field for the last 27 years.

Between 1994 and 1995, I was enrolled in a business trade school where I trained to be an administrative support professional. During that one year, I was student body president, won a writing contest, and was part of the leadership team for the students.

After trade school, I became a bookkeeping assistant and was given a chance to work as a legal secretary. Now I am providing services as a paralegal/legal assistant while I (finally) complete my doctorate degrees. In my role I have worked with litigation firms and assisted with at least 30 trials. This type of work provides me with a unique view of the world and how to conduct myself professionally.

Woman in dress, sash, and crown posing in front of green backgroundSusan Vanderburgh

What else would you like to share about yourself?

My current capacity as Mrs. California Ambassador FoRe Living Royal and Mrs. Elite Asia Universe means I have a very important role in society—to show good faith, goodwill to others, and to bring assistance to those in need. I have the ability to speak up for others who are unable or afraid. I am still learning and growing, and my Toastmasters experience has been a positive and encouraging part of that.


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