This week’s student spotlight is a personal story of growth in the toughest of times, triumph over self doubt, and learning to not be afraid. This story of resilience belongs to Iris Hinh, whose sponsorship started during her junior year of high school at West Hills in 2014. Typically, I would have taken the major points from Iris’ responses and put it into article format, but Iris’ story writes itself. So without further adieu, please enjoy this inspirational journey.
Can you tell me a bit about your life growing up?
My parents were born in Vietnam, but are ethnically Chinese. They immigrated to the U.S. following the Vietnam War. I was born in Manhattan but grew up in San Diego (Mira Mesa and Santee) with my mom and sister. My mom is a barber, and more or less raised both of us as a single parent. I was always a quiet student and enjoyed school. My sister and I changed schools quite a bit to fit my mom’s work schedule, so she could take us to school and pick us up. We spent a lot of time at my mom’s barber shop after school, on weekends, and during the summers.
What were the hardest parts for you growing up?
I think the hardest part was always seeing how hard my mom worked, yet many of my peers still made judgements about my family’s socioeconomic status. Despite my mom being busy running her own small business, I’ve always admired her resilience and kindness towards others. My friends and classmates would always make comments about my mom’s job as a barber or that we’re “lucky” to grow up in a household with a low-income (because we qualify for financial aid). My sister and I did alright in sports (we didn’t get involved in sports until high school because of the costs and my mom’s work schedule) and both graduated as valedictorians. There were times when I wished my mom could attend more of my tennis matches or come to family days at school, but I always understood.
How did you find ABFK?
ABFK found me. I remember being called up to the counselor’s office during junior year of high school and having a conversation with Mr. Nance about ABFK and what a sponsorship would mean. Later on, I learned that my sister and I were some of the first kids in the Grossmont Union High School District to be a part of ABFK, and in part, the West Hills’ principal had opened up that partnership with ABFK for other local students.
When your ABFK sponsorship started, what was the direction you wanted to see it go and where did it actually go?
I don’t think any seventeen-year-old truly knows the path they want to pursue for the rest of their life (or very few do). I was definitely lost and thought biochemistry was interesting. In hindsight, I had no idea what I would do with a degree in biochem, nor did I enjoy studying it. I think a big part of my initial decision in choosing the degree was the general perception that STEM is for “smart” people and offers job security. I attended UCLA and really struggled my first 1.5 years of college. As a first-gen college student, it was difficult to admit to myself that I was failing chemistry and calculus and disliked my major. After some much needed self-reflection, I decided to pursue education policy, though there was no formal degree for that at UCLA. I ended up completing my B.A. in Political Science and an Asian American Studies minor paired with an Education Studies minor. In the summer of 2018, I interned in Washington, D.C. for the first time and fell in love with the city and its opportunities. This was right after I had finally decided on education policy and seeing different organizations and people engage in education policy work affirmed my interest in education. Since then, I’ve been back to intern in the city two more times. I graduated in the pandemic (2020) but had already planned to complete a graduate program for education policy. Despite my mediocre GPA and GRE scores, I was admitted to all 5 masters programs at Georgetown, NYU, Columbia, Brown, and UPenn. I chose the Politics and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University because of the faculty, curriculum, and unique approach to studying education policy from the perspective of different actors involved.
What is something you’re most proud of since high school?
This is a difficult question. I would say, very generally, I’m proud of not being afraid to try. For example, some UCLA faculty and mentors told me that pursuing a masters in education policy is a waste of time and would lead to tens of thousands of dollars in debt (which is a fair warning). Personally, I felt that I wanted to learn more about education policy in a classroom setting before stepping into my career. This has always felt like the right step for me. People also told me that the programs I applied to wouldn’t accept me. I’m graduating from my program this May, without debt or any financial contributions from my mother for both undergrad and graduate school. I started working remotely as permanent staff for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), which is based in DC, in the middle of December 2021. I initially doubted I was going to hear back, but I applied and interned with the CBPP State Fiscal Policy (SFP) team for summer and fall 2021 terms until I was offered a Research Associate role with the SFP Research team. CBPP is a research and policy institute that advances federal and state policies to help build a nation where everyone — regardless of income, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ZIP code, immigration status, or disability status — has the resources they need to thrive. I couldn’t be more excited to move to DC after my graduation this May and to work for an organization that focuses on policy work to lift up individuals and families with low and moderate incomes. In my first 6 months on the job, I’ve written on how states are advancing immigrant-inclusive policies, earned income tax credits, K-12 unfinished learning, and equitable spending of the American Rescue Plan’s State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds.
How did ABFK impact you?
ABFK provided a community and opened opportunities for me to think more critically about what I wanted out of college. From the East Coast College Trip, I met other local students and explored different college campuses. One of the students I met on that trip is actually in NYC now, and we got brunch and caught up recently. Also, on that trip, Mr. Nance was particularly proud of Drexel and really emphasized the importance of their Co-op program for his college experience. Since then, I’ve been weighing the importance of professional experience while completing my academic studies. Broadly speaking, ABFK creates a community to support San Diego students, which gave me more inspiration to look toward the field of education and my own community. During my first summer in DC (2018), I met a UC Irvine student who was also a sponsored teen through ABFK. We bonded over our experiences with ABFK and even reconnected at a ABFK holiday Gulls game in 2019. I’m currently mentoring two ABFK students and hope to continue to be part of the ABFK community, despite being across the country.
How has ABFK continued to impact your life even after your sponsorship ended?
Adding to the previous answer, I’ve continued to try to foster supportive networks for first-gen, low-income students. The ABFK sponsorship helped me recognize the importance of supporting students who face financial and other barriers to reaching and thriving at higher education institutions. At UCLA, I was the Resident Assistant for the First-To-Go Living Learning Community for first-gen college students in one of the dorms. The programs were focused on connecting students to campus resources like the Career Center and free tutoring, or bringing guests to speak about financial wellness and self-care. More than anything, that dorm community allowed students to share their challenges and ways to support each other in undergrad. Last week, I co-hosted a First-Gen Student Mix & Mingle for students, faculty, and administrators at Teachers College. Mentorship and extending the community are powerful tools to make students feel welcomed and supported.
Where are you now? Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
I completed my comprehensive exam last week and have one last grad school assignment left before graduation! I’m in NYC, specifically the Teachers College dorms because I’m a Community Assistant (basically an RA). I’ll be in DC for the foreseeable future. I hope to be a Policy Analyst at some point, specifically working on K-12 education.