Community College Opens Doors To The American Dream
By Kien Truong
This was previously posted on Forbes.com
In Vietnam, my parents never had the opportunity to go school beyond third grade. However, they believed that getting an education was the only way to escape poverty. So, in 2014, just after I finished my junior year in high school, my family and I immigrated to the United States. It was one of the most transformational moments of my life, but it was a difficult transition with many struggles.
When we first arrived in Portland, Oregon, I immediately started as a Senior at Franklin High School, where administrators pressured me to graduate by the end of the school year. Despite the fact that I had to learn English while completing 12th grade, somehow, I managed to graduate on time and became the first person in my family to earn a high school diploma.
But I wasn’t motivated to pursue higher education. I didn’t know what college would look like, and I thought it was too expensive for a kid like me. Honestly, I was afraid.
But my English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher, Alice Weinstein, changed my mind and sent my life in a new direction. She steered me into Portland Community College’s Future Connect Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships and other support for first-generation and low-income students. When I got accepted into this program, my fears and financial worries about going to college melted away. With the academic coaching, mentoring, skill-building, and scholarship assistance available through this program, college seemed possible and I enrolled in September 2015—just my second year in the United States.
As a child of immigrants, I had a lot of family responsibilities. My parents lack English proficiency skills, so it was on me, as the oldest child, to learn to open bank accounts, apply for food stamps and healthcare, translate bills, schedule doctor appointments, and act as a guardian for my younger siblings. It was a lot to manage along with my studies.
But Future Connect made my transition into PCC more accessible. I was assigned to a personalized academic adviser, Mike Pichay, who worked with me to create a three-year academic plan to ensure I graduate with an Associate’s Degree by June of 2018.
While attending PCC, leadership became an important part of my educational experience. I joined the Open Educational Resources (OER) Committee to bring students’ perspective to the table in supporting the work of lowering textbook costs, and I co-founded a student club called Unity Through Diversity, which organized the “Spread the Love Project” to raise funds to provide food and school supplies for over 200 Vietnamese and orphans. And those helped lead me to my current leadership roles as Chair for the District Student Council and as a Student Trustee on the PCC’s Board of Directors. In both roles, I have learned how to use my voice for those who are rarely heard. My intersectionalities have motivated me to represent the voices of the underserved population. I make sure to create a space for students to communicate and collaborate with the Board, and to challenge them, too.
Underserved and minority students should have the opportunities to raise their voices to the decision making table. So I work with the national Association of Community College Trustees to bring the student voice into local, state, and national policy conversations.
These opportunities have lead me to be named one of Achieving the Dream’s 2018 Scholars, a year-long experiential learning program to enhance my leadership and critical thinking skills that included attending and presenting at ATD’s annual professional development conference in Nashville, Tennessee.
I am also lucky to be part of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, which for the past 100 years has recognized high-achieving students at two year colleges and helps them build their leadership skills. I am excited to travel to Kansas City for PTK’s Centennial Celebration this week where I will meet with fellow students to discuss ways we can build opportunities for ourselves, our peers, and our communities.
And all this activism and engagement is paying off. This June, with extreme pride, I will be the first one in my family to hold a college degree. I plan to transfer to a four-year institution to study International Relations, and, then, to pursue a doctorate in Educational Leadership.
Without the affordable tuition at PCC and personalized advising at Future Connect, this journey would not have happened. That’s why I support the College Promise movement; it encourages communities all over the country to remove financial barriers and provide academic and social support for people who think higher education is beyond their means. By covering tuition and fees and other support for students to attend a community or technical college, Promise programs offer the opportunity for anyone seeking a college degree to succeed.
Three years ago, I was struggling to learn English. Now, I am the Student Trustee at the largest community college in the state of Oregon, representing students and initiating collaborations between administrators and students. PCC has transformed my life by giving me an education, opportunities, and resources to grow as a servant leader. PCC is where I found my goal of ultimately becoming a college president to further the mission that the community college is for everyone. I am proud and grateful to be a community college student.
Community college has provided the pathway to my American Dream, which is to advocate for access to education for all.