By The Anh Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
What does the word “college” mean to a former refugee?
Maybe you were that kid who got nothing for Christmas and nothing for your birthdays. Maybe you and your family are refugees or immigrants. You may be a victim of poverty and unfortunate circumstances.
How do you break free from poverty? By creating more hope and finding more opportunities! How does a kid from a poor family become a lawyer, a doctor, or the greatest humanitarian ever? By obtaining the right knowledge and meeting the right teachers. For me, that teacher was my father, Vien.
My father was an attorney in Vietnam. Because of his former political background, the communist government wouldn’t let him practice law freely. He had to ask for permission to represent clients in trials. Since he couldn’t be a full-time lawyer, he worked as a human resource manager by day, and provided pro bono legal counsel work, out of our house, after work and on weekends.
As refugees from Vietnam, my parents were clueless about America’s education system. In 2001, I was a senior at West Seattle High School. I had dreams of attending one of the colleges I’d seen in the movies. I wanted to live in a dorm room and meet new friends. Then reality hit when I got a low SAT score and barely passed the Compass test at the local community college.
I had to ask my poor father for $98 to pay for catching up in algebra class, because my high school did not properly prepare me for college courses. My dream of going out of state for college was shattered. However, I was still able to go to college because of a one-year full ride scholarship for North Seattle Community College, where I got accepted in 2001.
Because my English writing score on the Compass wasn’t high enough, my financial aid and my scholarship wouldn’t pay for makeup classes. For the next two years, I paid for my tuition for non-college level classes with my credit cards.
After graduating from North Seattle Community College, I enrolled in Central Washington University. Because of my full-time work schedule and maxed out credit cards. I had to drop out after the first quarter.
Five years later, in 2007, I ran for Port of Seattle Commissioner. After hearing all the other candidates had college degrees, I decided it was time to get mine if I ever wanted my political career to go somewhere. I had to work full time, and I didn’t know how to stay in school and support myself. I found University of Phoenix, an online college, and it took me almost four years to finish my degree. I finally graduated from college in 2011.
For the past few years, my father, my attorney, my family, and my clients have been suggesting to me that I should try law school, but I thought, “I am not smart enough, nor could I get anyone to loan me $150,000 for law school.”
A few months ago, a friend advised me to create an account with the Law School Admission Council (LSAC.org) and apply for a financial waiver. I applied and was approved. Next, I visited UW Law School to speak to a counselor to find out admission requirements. I was told that UW wasn’t the school for me because I graduated from an online college and wouldn’t be able to keep up, and there were a limited number of scholarships. The receptionist overheard this conversation and told me that many law school students receive help with living expenses, bus passes, and books.
“Once you get accepted into graduate school, your school will help you apply for personal loans because graduate programs are tough and require a lot of time, and it is not recommended that students work, at least during their first year,” she said.
I was shocked. At the age of 30, after being in America for 20 years, finally someone told me how this education system really works. So this is how a poor kid can have a chance to get out of poverty; this is what our president meant when he said that education is accessible even to poor people. Many of my friends and I thought that college was for rich kids, and that we couldn’t leave home or pursue graduate degrees because we did not know how to pay our rent, bills, or how our children would eat. That receptionist made my day.
A few weeks later, the LSAT Prep book came in the mail. It looked like a foreign language. I knew I needed help. I didn’t know how to find a scholarship for the LSAT Prep class, so I prayed. God answered me and I came up with the $1,200 for the class.
I didn’t have any faith at all in the first few weeks of class, but after receiving tutoring I found it to be less intimidating. The teacher explained that the admission letter is the “golden ticket” to getting loans for personal finances and tuition.
I hope that my story of finding out about college affordability and how to stay in college will encourage others to rethink their prior experiences and beliefs about not being able to go to college. Also, I want to thank Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell for trying to allow one free year of community college education for all Seattle high school graduates. (end)