Thao Phan was just 7 years old in 2006 when her family immigrated to the United States from Vietnam. For Thao, one of the most difficult challenges in immigrating to a new country was adapting to a new education system that was so different from what she was used to. She credits A Bridge for Kids for helping with the transition, which ultimately allowed her to pursue her passions as a first-generation college student at Wesleyan University.
Thao first learned about A Bridge for Kids through her college counselor at The Preuss School who encouraged her to submit an entry to ABFK’s annual essay contest. Although she was not selected as a winner, she was encouraged to apply to the mentorship program and within a month she was matched with her sponsor Minh. As it turned out, Minh also immigrated from Vietnam and attended university in the States. Minh identified with her struggle as an immigrant and first-generation, college-bound student. Thao remembers how influential Minh was in helping her parents understand and navigate the college application process. “It was really important for my parents to have an American adult who went through the college process because I was only 17 at the time and although I knew that [Wesleyan] was the right choice for me, it was hard to convince them because of my age,” said Phan.
After visiting several colleges and universities with ABFK’s East Coast College Tour, Thao was convinced that she wanted to go to school on the East Coast. However, it wasn’t as easy to convince her parents that moving 3,000 miles away was the best idea. She recalls how emotional that decision was for her family especially considering she was an only child. Fortunately for her, her mentor was able to join in the conversation and act as a bridge of understanding between herself and her parents. “We had a meeting with [Minh] and her husband and both my parents. That was the first time I saw my Dad cry. I could tell that he didn’t want me to go so far away but that was the first time he said it out loud.”
Fast forward a few years, and she couldn’t imagine being happier anywhere else. She is entering her sophomore year and is majoring in Psychology and Civic. In addition to her classwork, she is working as a Teaching Assistant for a Global Mental Health class and is involved in a Psychology research lab. One of her primary goals is to bring more diversity into the field of research in Psychology. Her initial interest in the topic stemmed from the readings in an Intro to Psychology class. “What really struck me the most was that a majority of research done in the field of Psychology has been done in either the U.S. or Europe. I started wondering ‘are we really studying a human way of thinking or just a Western way of thinking?’”
She also continues to apply her background as an Asian-American immigrant to her studies in Psychology. “As a low-income, immigrant, first-generation student in the U.S. I think I can bring a much-needed perspective to the field. I remember writing a paper for Intro to Psych. I had to apply my life to developmental stages but my experience didn’t seem to fit because I had a very different childhood than everyone else and these studies were done in Europe and the U.S. ”Most notably, she had the opportunity to conduct a research project that examined Mental Health Stigma in the Asian community. “I noticed that in the different generations in my family there are different levels of belief in the legitimacy of mental health and I wanted to explore that a bit more.”
While she now admits that the transition from Vietnam to the U.S. and then high school to college hasn’t been easy, she has witnessed first-hand the importance of surrounding oneself with people who come from a similar background and have lived through those experiences. While in college, she still looks to her mentor Minh for advice and encouragement. The pair still try to meet up for dinner at Minh’s house or a local restaurant when Thao is home on school breaks and she even helped Minh clean out her closet during a recent move from San Diego to Los Angeles!
“It’s nice to be able to come home and catch up with someone who is also Vietnamese and went through the college process. It’s hard to explain to my parents certain aspects of college with the language and cultural barriers. It’s hard for them to understand certain things that I do so it was important for me to have someone like my sponsor to talk to and who shares the same ethnicity as me.”
So what’s in store for the future? For now, pursuing her passions in college is her #1 goal and she can’t wait to see what’s next.