Since the Dell Scholars program began in 2004, we’ve told the stories of many high school seniors just starting their college journey with us. But what happens on that journey? What challenges do they face? What changes for students once they have a diploma in hand? And what changes for their families and communities, too?
Getting a college degree isn’t the end of the story for our students. It’s just the beginning. Our alumni stories show the ripple effects that can emanate when just one person’s path changes. For many students, a college degree breaks a generational cycle of poverty and myriad related challenges. It’s a game changer for students, families and society at large alike. Here, you’ll hear one of our 1,400 Dell Scholar graduates talk about her journey and where she is now. And, perhaps even more importantly, where she’s headed. (Read the introduction to the series here, and other Dell Scholars’ stories here and here.)
Vi was nine when she boarded an airplane for the first time, moving with her parents and one-year-old brother from their rural village in Vietnam to the United States for a shot at more opportunity.
That momentous decision paid off. Today, at 27, Vi holds an economics degree from Yale University (Dell Scholar class of 2008); works as a data strategist at the City Colleges of Chicago, one of the nation’s largest community college systems; and is starting a master’s degree combining public policy with computer science and data analytics at the University of Chicago.
In 1997, Vi’s family landed in California, where they had relatives. But the family quickly decided to move to Des Moines, Iowa, drawn by a lower cost of living. Vi rapidly learned English at school and became the family translator. While it was difficult at times, Vi says the experience forced her to come out of her shell. “When I came to the U.S., I was so shy that I barely ever talked in school, even though in Vietnam this wasn’t an issue. I was nervous when I was asked to translate, but also had no choice,” Vi says. “My parents were asking for help, which they had never done before. I think I grew up faster. But it was also a really good thing for me to see that I could help, and that it was important to ask for what you need.”
Finances were tight. Vi remembers the first time she heard her parents arguing about money. In Vietnam, her parents were teachers. In Iowa, her father worked two jobs; her mother worked the night shift at a mail services company.
[quote]My journey was only possible because of the many sacrifices of those closest to me, and because of the work of many people who were once strangers who fought for me to have the opportunities I have today. I hope to be like one of them someday.[/quote]
Vi thrived at school, taking advanced courses at a nationally recognized magnet program, where most of her friends were college bound (not the case at the regular high school Vi also attended.) Her parents expected her to attend college, but they were not familiar with the admissions process. When Vi sat at the public library stumped by the financial-aid forms, a devoted school counselor from the TRIO Upward Bound program drove over to help.
While applying to college, Vi applied to Yale because a friend had visited the campus and encouraged her to submit an application. “I was bouncing with joy to share the news that I had been accepted, my mom’s response was, ‘Yale? Where is that?’” Vi says. “She had never heard of New Haven, and had not planned on having me so far away.” But, in the end, her parents supported her choice and Vi moved into her dorm on the New Haven, C.O., campus.
Vi, who graduated at the top of her high school class, was now a small fish in a big pond of other top students, many of whom came from much wealthier families. She found Yale nurturing, but she still had to find her place socially, decoding little things like proper dining hall etiquette. After enjoying a close support network in Des Moines, Vi’s biggest challenge was learning to ask for help.
After graduation, Vi moved to Washington, D.C., working in the federal Office of Management and Budget, then as a Congressional Budget Office analyst. She still has a note her father wrote on an old work timesheet and tucked into her suitcase when she moved to start her new job; it sums up what college has meant for her, and her family. “A man of few words, my dad wrote that he was very proud that my hard work paid off, and that I was now free to pursue my dreams—whatever those dreams may be.” Vi says.
But the value of Vi’s college degree spreads beyond just her. She’s been able to help her family financially. She’s helped her brother navigate the college process. And she has given advice to her cousin, younger students at her old high schools and others in her community with similar paths to her own. “I now have knowledge that very few people in my family and communities in Des Moines or California or Vietnam have,” Vi says.
And she intends to use that knowledge in her career to help schools do better by their low-income students, perhaps eventually working in the elementary school setting. “Growing up, I thought my education in Des Moines was ordinary. I believed that if low-income kids worked hard, they would find the resources and support necessary to get to college, and beyond. I eventually realized how that was not the norm. In fact, my journey was only possible because of the many sacrifices of those closest to me, and because of the work of many people who were once strangers who fought for me to have the opportunities I have today. I hope to be like one of them someday.”