Inside the Classroom: Student Realizes Her Own Immigrant Story by Writing College Essay with Mentor

College student Phuong Ta and her mentor August Hamilton worked together on her college application through the Emerge program. It aims to help low income, high achieving students get into top colleges.
One of the hardest parts of a college application is the personal statement. One student reflects on what she learned about herself and her immigrant experience as she worked on her personal essay with the help of a mentor.

Transcript

The college admissions process can be pretty daunting – especially for first generation students.

Take Phuong Ta. She left her native Vietnam when she was 17 years old. And just a few months later, she started working with a mentor, August Hamilton. He was a middle school math teacher. But he volunteered to help Phuong get into the best college possible.

August Hamilton (AH): After school we’d go over to Chavez and we’d have these like meetings. And we’d go and meet the kids and we’d sit down with them and we were like, ‘You know what, ‘We’re going to do this entire college application process. We’re going to get you all into college.’ So the first time I met Phuong was at one of these meetings and I actually had no idea about her, never met her in my entire life.

Phuong Ta (PT):  Yeah for my personal statement, it was about my accent and I wrote about how I got make fun of when I first got here and I was called “FOB,” Fresh off the Boat. That’s the term for Asian American immigrants. I remember I didn’t really get along well with, like, some of the Asian American kids in my school because I wasn’t like them. I don’t dress like them. I didn’t talk like them. And I didn’t even get to sit at the same table at lunch with them.

I thought that was a really sad story but somehow he helped me to realize that’s an incredible story.

AH:  You sometimes don’t realize, like, how amazing you are and how much, like, of a challenge you’ve had and you’ve overcome. You don’t see it that way. And so, like, being able to take that story and write it down for me was, like, it was a really inspiring experience for me personally.

PT: I wasn’t proud of it. I wasn’t thinking of it any spectacular thing. I just think this is a typical story of any immigrant who just came here, have to experience this, like, you have to face discrimination. You have to face all this. It just take me a while to realize why my story is different from all the immigrant story.

AH:  And I knew how much it took for you to tell me that story … I didn’t want to let you down. I did it not just for you guys, but just, like, for all of us. And I, like, include myself in that group, too, because of the fact that I know what it’s like for people to look at you and make assumptions.

PT: It was so dramatic that day I got back the decision. So I was at Chavez [High School] in the auditorium and I checked the Twitter of Tufts’ admission and they tweeted out, ‘Oh, we’re going to release the decision today at 3 p.m.’ and they were supposed to release it like five days later – not today. So I totally didn’t see that coming. I got like a panic attack. I fell off a chair. I cried. I called my dad, ‘Dad, I have to go home!’ So I went home and wrapped myself in a blanket, waiting in front of the computer for, like two, hours before I got the acceptance letter.

I just, like, start crying for like an hour straight.  ‘Mom, I finally got this!’ I was so happy for, like, the whole week that … I feel emotional now talking about it. It’s probably like the first time that I believe in something like a dream come true, or like dream big and you can be big, stuff like that.

I was happy for my family and for Chavez [High School], for the [Emerge] program. Because I didn’t prove it just for myself that I can do it, but I prove it to everyone who didn’t believe in [the program] and people who told me that I was wasting my time.

I’m glad I get to prove that like kids like me we have a chance and we have a shot at this school, just as long as you believe in me.

AH:  And I don’t know if you realize, like, how much of an inspiration you’ve been for all the students that we’ve been working with. You know, we always talk about Phuong and, like, the kids know who Phuong is and, like, they get so excited about Tufts and everyone wants to go to Tufts and they want to be like you. I don’t know if you realize the impact that you’ve had on your campus, on, like, your community…

PT: I sure never imagine that … Like we were really focused about getting to college but one thing we didn’t get a chance to talk about much is how to survive in college, especially when you’re a student of color in a predominantly white institution. It’s extremely different. Like when I go to Chavez [High School], the majority there is Latino, Latina and African American students. And everyone was low-income student, so it’s normal to go to school where their family don’t speak English or they have free lunch, just like me. But when I go to Tufts, it’s totally different.

AH: That was one of the things when you guys left, I was, I was always little bit nervous about because I knew it was going to be a huge culture shock.  But I think, you know, the fact that you guys have gone through so much and gotten to where you are and got to Tufts, I knew it just would be another challenge you guys would be able to overcome.

PT: I’m just glad that you all took a risk to like believe in us and help us to take a risk and believe in ourselves. I just want to take this chance to, like, say this again one more time – that I really, really appreciate all the things you did for me, for all the kids you’re working with right now. You really make a big impact in our life. 

Bio photo of Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for KUHF, including K-12 and higher education.

Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and regularly contributed to WLRN, the local NPR affiliate and Miami Herald news partner...