Next week, our family will be visiting Disneyland, the land of dream 😊 so to speak. It reminds me of the story of failure during the early career of Walt Disney. Earlier in his career, he was fired from a newspaper for not being creative enough; and yet, that same newspaper ended up filing for bankruptcy while Disney went on to create many movies that inspire generations.
I came to this country when I was 16 years old. At the time, for me, the opportunity to study abroad was like a Cinderella’s dream come true. Growing up in a war-torn country, our family struggled. Although we weren’t as poor as many others and always had food on our table, I remember those days when we didn’t have money to buy side dishes beside rice and soy sauce. I remember, as a child, taking my relatives to the airport to travel to the United States as refugees, watching the airplanes take off and wished that one day I too would be able to fly on one of those flying houses. I remember dreaming of going abroad, meeting new people and learning about new cultures. So, when my uncle offered to bring me here to study, it was an offer that we couldn’t refuse. It was a dream come true. However, within 2 months in the United States, it turned out that the uncle didn’t really have good intention. I was abused and finally kicked out of his house.
As a 16 years old, alone in the United States, I faced with a choice either to go back to Vietnam and be in the comfort of my family, or to try to make it here in the United States. Going home would be easy, but staying here means I can create better life for myself, help my family, and add value to others back home.
I decided to stay.
Life was hard then. I couldn’t find a good job to support my living. I ended up working at a shabby gangster-gathering coffee shop to earn money for food and a place to sleep (a couch in the living room of another relative). I also had other various odd jobs. School was free for me because California provided free public schools for all kids under 18. Lunch and breakfast were free in public school. We had free medical clinics. So, all I needed was to earn enough to pay for my food, the couch, and a monthly bus pass. There were days when I stood in front of a McDonald, calculating how best to spend my $5 extra money on food so that it can last me the longest. There were days when I stood in front of a bus station right outside of a Marriott, dreaming that one day I will have a car, and one day I will be able to go inside a Marriott like those fancy ladies and gentlemen that I saw coming in and out of the hotel. There were days that I stood by the locker room watching my classmates discuss their weekend plans, while I silently cried and wished that I had my family with me.
I dreamed of one day attending UC Berkeley. But, I couldn’t see how it could happen. I spoke very little English, had no money, and no family. UC Berkeley was one of most prestigious universities in California, and it only admitted really bright kids with extremely high SAT scores. Whenever I thought of my dream, I would become scared and discouraged. However, I determined then that although I cannot control or know what tomorrow will bring, I can manage today. Therefore, I will make today the best day of my life. That means I will not waste any minute to study. I will learn English even in my sleep. I bought a radio and had a headset on even in my sleep so that my subconscious mind could learn English and learn its pronunciation even when I was sleeping.
After high school, I went to a community college with a small scholarship. Beside that scholarship, I still had to pay an extra sum of money toward tuition plus I needed living expense. I didn’t know how, but I went anyway. The first day I was there, I came and visited all the employment opportunities looking for a job. I didn’t get hired because I was a freshman and had no experience. There were more applicants than there were jobs. I went and visited a Math professor. I asked her to please let me be her assistant, and grade homework for free. My only ask was that after a month, if I did a good job, she would recommend me to other people. It paid off. She recommended me to become a math tutor, to work in the math lab. There, I made a proposal to the math department to let me create a department website for them, and to put all the math lab lessons online. In 1997, website was still a new thing. The department was skeptical, but was generous enough to let me try. They ended up hiring me lots of hours to create and grow the website for them. Coincidentally, my experience in the United States encouraged my dad to step out his comfort zone back home and start his company. He wanted to earn enough money to help his daughter in the United States. He was successful and was able to help me. Between my various jobs and his help, I was able to pay for my living expense and college tuition.
After two years in community college, I got accepted to UC Berkeley with a scholarship. Same stories repeated. I approached my professors, convinced them to let me try out for free, and was hired as the first junior-level teaching assistant of the electrical engineering and computer science department. Housing close to campus was too expensive, and I couldn’t afford it. I stayed with a friend’s family in Oakland. However, because the study curriculum was very intensive at Berkeley, I often had to study late into the nights when the transportation no longer ran. There were days that I would just wash myself up in the public restrooms, and there were nights that I just sneaked into a lab and slept there instead of going home. I often had no money and was hungry. But, because I was one of very few female students in electrical engineering and computer science classes, my male classmates often took me out for food, which I was more than grateful for and very gladly accepted their offer to pay for my food.
One night, I came into one of the conference rooms and slept on the bench. I overslept. Early in the morning, when I was half asleep, I heard the voices of my professors who came in for their meetings. One person gasped:
oh dear, someone sleeps here…
And, then I heard another professor whispered:
ssss… let her sleep, we can find another meeting room.
I’m forever thankful for this kind act. I can’t imagine how embarrassed I would be if I would be woken up at the time. My professor really embodies what Eyeore said in “Winnie the Pooh”:
A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the differences.
As Peter Pan said
All it takes is faith and trust
I didn’t have much and I didn’t know how I would get to where I wanted to be from where I was, but with a bold dream, having faith and trust in stepping forward one step at a time, I have overcome.
Venture outside your comfort zone. The rewards are worth it. – Rapunzel.
At 16, I ventured out of my comfort zone. I was abused and talked down by many people, but I was also helped and encouraged by others like my teachers and professors. As I kept walking forward, I found more open doors and windows. Today, near 40, I’m embarking on additional journey where I don’t have all the answers, it is scary at times, but I know that
All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them. – Walt Disney
Because of my past experiences, I know that as long as I have faith, work hard, and keep walking forward, I will be fine.
Believe you can, then you will. – Mulan
Thank you to all my friends, teachers, and mentors for believing in me and encouraging me. I appreciate you.
With love in my heart,