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Personal Stories from Our Students

Phuoc V. Le

NSRCF Board member Phuoc Le was a scholarship recipient in 1994, when he was a senior (graduating first in his class) at Luther Burbank High School, in Sacramento, California. He and his family fled from Vietnam by boat, lived in refugee camps in Hong Kong, and eventually arrived in the United States in 1981. Over the years, he has provided us updates on his life. He described some of his early experiences in his scholarship application:

After many happenings in escaping Vietnam, my family reached Kansas. After a short stay in mid-America, we settled in Sacramento. I had to be the father figure in our single parent family, and for one month during my senior year, my mother returned to Vietnam, and I had to be both mother and father. I tended to my baby sister’s bottle and diaper needs, and helped my eight-year-old brother with his math and other schoolwork. All the while, I kept up with my activities in the Interact Club, Science Olympiad, and Leadership Club, and also my community volunteer work. I even managed to meet college entrance application deadlines.

There are many things I have gained from these experiences — a sense of responsibility, self-confidence, [knowing] not to have children until I am positively ready (!), and a willingness to give up short-lived fun in order to accomplish something more important in the long run. I learned that if I can take a full load of classes and do well, help my school and community, and go home and take care of my younger siblings, I can do anything.

Phuoc went on to attend Dartmouth College where he had a double major in biochemistry and molecular biology, and Asian languages and cultures. He studied language, culture, anthropology, and spent over a year in Beijin, China, studying traditional medicine. He is fluent in Vietnamese, Mandarin, and English, and he speaks Spanish and Japanese as well. He wrote:

I studied Chinese and Chinese medicine, including acupuncture; I also spent many months volunteering in a clinic in the jungles of Costa Rica; and conducted child psychology research in Bosnia. I had the opportunity to live with a Japanese family in Osaka for three months to study Japanese. During my travels I witnessed the incredible inequity, the illogical distribution of wealth and health care, and the devastating effects of poverty and war. With my natural inclination towards healing and providing comfort to the sick, I decided that I can be most effective at fighting the root causes of disease by going to medical school and public health school.

Phuoc graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth in 2000 and enrolled in medical school at Stanford where he completed a concurrent Master’s of Public Health at UC Berkeley with a concentration in International Health. While at Stanford, he was a founding member of a medical student-run free health clinic in East San Jose designed to reach the immigrant Vietnamese and Spanish-speaking communities. In 2009 he was a resident in internal medicine, pediatrics, and global health equity at Harvard Medical School, a five-year program and he wrote:

This extraordinary training program (at Harvard) allows me to spend up to three months a year away from Boston to work in under-resourced communities of my choosing. So far I’ve worked in Haiti and Rwanda. This year I will be in Lesotho and Malawi. I have been working mostly with Paul Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health, which is also based in Boston.

I often think about what factors contribute to the incredible stories of resilience that we witness every time an NSRC Fund scholarship is given. I want to express, on behalf of all past winners, my sincerest gratitude for the support. For many of us your recognition came at a time when we needed the encouragement, and you instilled confidence in us who otherwise might have succumbed to the pressures of marginalization. Instead, we are realizing our full potential. In the spring of 1994 the local newspaper ran a story about me and another recipient. I was quoted as saying, ‘Someday, when I’m able, I would like to give back to those who are in need of support.’ I like to believe that I started giving back the day after making that statement.

After his residency, Phuoc returned to California to continue working towards global health equity. He is currently Assistant Clinical Professor of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics and Co-Director of Global Health-Hospital Medicine Fellowship at the Division of Hospital Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

SueLyne Huynh

SueLyne Huynh, 2007 Scholarship Recipient from Shakopee High School in Minnesota, updates us on her activities in 2008 from the University of Minnesota.

After graduating from high school, I continued to work at the Best Buy corporate office as a Human Resources analyst. That summer was busy — I took two classes while working two jobs. The first year of college went by much too slowly. Since I’ve been in the workforce for so long, I am anxious to get out of college. Last spring semester I took an international finance course that I fell in love with. However, as I continued with my finance major through the summer and this fall, I am coming to realize I don’t like it after all. Nevertheless, I will continue and graduate with a double major in Human Resources and Finance. The start of this year has been rough. I’m averaging only two to three hours of sleep every night and then cramming an 11-hour night on Fridays. But, it will all come to an end soon — May 2009 when I graduate with my BSB!

I continue to be active at school and in my community. I am the treasurer of the Cambodian Student Association of Minnesota and an active member of the Business Association of Multicultural Students. I also volunteer at the Feed My Starving Children organization. Being able to help feed others is extremely exciting for me and I try to make time for it. I’m also very excited about my trip to Cambodia in December. I will be going for 15 days to help out an orphanage as well as teach at a school. I went to Cambodia in May and knew that I had to go back. My passion for languages has really developed in the past few years too. In my spare time (when I actually have some) I am studying Chinese, Spanish, and French. I also play basketball and rock climbing for fun.

The NSRC Fund has been amazing. When I received the newsletter last year, I was very excited to read about all the updates. I look forward to keeping in touch as well as possibly giving another student money to go to school. Thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to further my educational studies.

Sheng Vang

Sheng Vang received her scholarship in 1994 when she was a high school senior in Sacramento, California. In 1997 she shared this perspective on her background, the NSRCF award, and what it has meant to her.

I just graduated from Consumers River College in Sacramento. It’s a junior college. Now I’ve been accepted by the University of California at Davis. I’m going to major in biology with an emphasis on botany, and then I’m going to go to optometry school. I’m fascinated by eyesight. In high school, we had to go around and talk with people and think about what we were going to do in the future. I went and talked with optometrists and I really liked it. Optometry is a professional field. It’s a quiet environment. I like the quiet environment.

It was hard for me at junior college. I’m a really hard worker. I work hard for everything. It was so hard for me, but I’d tell myself, “Ok. Just don’t give up.” So I’d go to sleep at night and next morning I’d wake up and try again I just don’t like to give up. I have this conscience in my mind that tells me, “You can’t give up.” I am proud because I really did the best I could.

When I graduated from high school, my parents wanted me to go to Sacramento State and I didn’t want to because I felt my whole life I lived my parents’ dream. I applied to UC (the University of California) and I got accepted at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, but in our culture, the Hmong, for a girl to go far away, you put a shame on your parents. People say, “Oh look at that girl. She’s probably living with someone.” My parents wanted me to go to school but not the school I wanted to go to. It was hard because I fought against them and it broke their hearts. My parents aren’t ready to let me go into the world. I made a deal with them that I would go to the community college and live at home so they could get used to the idea and then I would move to UC Davis. They did agree. But I think my dad thought I would never finish college because Hmong girls get married early and he thought that somewhere along the line I’d get married. But it didn’t end up the way he thought.

My dad thought that if I did do what I wanted, he’d lose me forever, not have control. I know he’s proud of me, but at the same time it’s hard because I’m a girl, not a guy. I’m a girl and I’m aiming so high. I know that he’s proud of me, but at the same time, it hurts him a lot. If I were a guy, it would bring his name up. My dad is still so traditional.

The NSRCF scholarship really changed my dad’s mind about letting me go to college. My dad never thought I could win anything, because I’m a girl. He went to get the scholarship with me. I could almost see tears in his eyes because he was really proud of me. When he saw I got the scholarship, he said, “You’ve been working so hard.” It changed things after that. The scholarship really changed my dad’s perspective on me going to college. He would have let me got to school, but it changed things.

Junior college has prepared me for a four-year college. I’m really happy I didn’t go right away because I wasn’t ready for it. I’ve already been accepted at UC Davis and I’ll move there and start school in the fall.

Phuong Tang

Phuong Tang, a 1996 scholarship recipient from New York, submitted the following application essay when he applied for the scholarship. He enrolled in New York University.

Brazen? That would be the word I would use to paint a portrait of my mother and father. Brazen, because my mother and father did not know exactly what kind of odyssey they were about to embark upon, as they climbed aboard a small wooden boat teeming with at least 90 Vietnamese men, women, and children one night in 1979. Brazen, because my mother and father were well aware that the moment the boat began to sail away from Vietnam, they would leave behind all they had ever known. Nine sweltering days and cold nights was the span of the journey which we spent drifting aimlessly in the perilous China Sea. The sea was often infested with Thai pirates who were notorious for preying on boat people… Although we were fortunate to escape such danger, we were plagued by dangerously low levels of food, drinking water, and other essentials… When many soon died, we had to throw the bodies overboard, since space was of the essence. We reached the point where we were so exhausted by the seemingly hopeless situation that we simply could take no more, when we were miraculously rescued and brought to Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, it would be almost another two lengthy, tedious and arduous years of living in an overpopulated refugee camp before my family could finally step foot on American soil… Surviving in America was just as difficult as the journey here… My family soon learned that many Americans were not very courteous nor patient when they discovered that we were unable to speak the language. Also, since my family was poor, I could only afford to wear hand-me-downs, which were often the subject of public ridicule. Although these experiences were painful, I am composed of my experiences, like a mosaic is composed of pieces of tile and glass. In addition to shaping the present, my parents and their voyage have influenced my past and future. For example, as a result of the harsh conditions on the voyage, I came down with pneumonia and spent much of my young life in a hospital surrounded by doctors and nurses. This experience attributes to why one of my future aspirations involves becoming a pediatrician...

I recognize that all that I seek in life is behind a locked door, and that I too, must embark upon a journey of my own in search of the key of knowledge found only in institutions of higher learning that will unlock that door. Although my future endeavors may never surpass the risks that my mother and father took, the sacrifices they made, or what they achieved that night in 1979, I hope that they are just as remarkable. I also aspire that one day my children can in retrospect title me brazen for what I attained, just as I have of my parents. That would be my ultimate aspiration in life.