I remember feeling very lonely and confused during my high school graduation back in May 2013. I wondered if my peers felt scared the same way I was. I was about to begin a new chapter in my life called “college.”
I had a lot of questions about college. What should I major in? Should I go to America or Paris? Should I take a year off?
Now, I have all the answers. But back in Vietnam, I had no clue, no support and no direction.
Looking at my friends, they made it seem that college was a fun time. A chance to get out of Vietnam, study hard, party hard and go shopping. And so I thought that was going to be my experience as well. I felt entitled to this “fun” college experience.
Deep down inside, I knew that this wasn’t me, but I went along with them. The movies I watched did not make me feel better but further reinforced what college was supposed to be: socializing, drinking, staying up late to study, and living like there is no tomorrow.
Watching these movies and hearing my friends talk about college made me feel like something was wrong with me. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to have fun? Isn’t this the time when you are finally free from your parents and can do whatever you want?
I did not want to party hard. It just wasn’t me. I do not enjoy the taste of alcohol and would prefer a chocolate smoothie any day 🙂
I also tried to ask my parents for some college advice, but they could not help me. They did not attend college themselves. So I was the first out of my family to receive higher education. Just thinking about that makes me feel so proud and excited that I was the first. At the same time, I wish I had someone to turn to for all my questions, doubts and worries. When I think about all the questions I had and how terrified I felt, I want to give my 18-year-old self the biggest hug.
I had to figure out everything on my own. From sorting out my common app, making sure I arrived in NYC on time for orientation, moving into my dorm room and more. I did it all by myself. My parents did not travel with me and help me out. I don’t think you would have believed the number of things I did by myself without having my parents support. Yet on social media, I tried to portray myself that I had everything under control. That I could handle everything by myself.
People commonly associate the first day of college with children surrounded by their family escorting them to their dorm room. That was not my case.
Looking back, I wished my parents could be there on my first day of college. Even if they could not help me academically, it would have been nice if they could be present for me whenever I called them. My Sarah Lawrence College experience was a difficult time for me. I was trying to figure out college, my new life in America and figure out who I was. Am I my mother? Do I want to be? Or should I be myself and risk losing a lot of friends. I remember trying to figure out what area to major in but had no clue, so I went for liberal arts. I chose it randomly. I did not know any better.
My friends in Vietnam went to Europe for their studies. Their parents had already set up an apartment, a nice car and many nice things for them so that when they arrived, everything was ready. The majority of them studied Economics and Business. It seemed like they had their future all set out. Study abroad. Get Degree. Go back to Vietnam take over the family business.
I was ashamed of my parent’s financial situation and never told my friends we were struggling. I was very close to going to the American University of Paris. But in the end, I could not because it was too expensive.
There was just a lot of shame with not appearing rich or having enough money. This is one of the Vietnamese values I dislike nowadays.
Here is what I would tell my 18-year-old self.
#1 You should not feel ashamed for going to community college
When I dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College and went back to Vietnam, my grades were not good. I had to re-do everything to have a second chance to go to college. I enrolled myself at De Anza College, which is in San Jose. The people and professors I met there, I will never forget. For the longest time, I felt embarrassed for attending a community college because it was not prestigious enough. I avoided social media at all cost. I was afraid that one day someone would find out I went to community college. There is so much shame in Asian culture when you do not attend a prestigious university. I plan on changing that. Because of community college, I saved money and spent time figuring out what I wanted to do with my studies. I also met many wonderful people that I am lucky to call my friends today.
#2 You should not feel ashamed about your financial situation
We all go through challenges. The one thing that upsets me in Vietnamese culture is that when you are not succeeding or look “put together”, you will be looked down on. I do not understand this. This value sets people up to feel trapped and humiliated when they experience problems.
Who do they tell? Their friends? Their family? Do they keep it to themselves and try to numb by drinking and clubbing? 🙁
Mental health is not extensive in Vietnam. Our society does not take it seriously compared to the West. I understand how hard it is to talk to your Asian parents. Feelings are not discussed. That is why when I raise my kids, having an open dialogue with them is a must. I hope we as a Vietnamese society can make some changes in regards to mental health, being more open to discussing problems and feelings in private and public settings.
#3 You should not feel ashamed for working part-time jobs to support yourself
When I got my first job as a hostess at a sushi restaurant in Stamford, CT, I felt like I lived a double life. On social media, I tried to keep up with appearances, but my parents were not doing well in reality. I wish I could detail the situation, but I am not ready to share it with you. I envied my friends who enjoyed a lavish lifestyle abroad in Europe. Meanwhile, I was living with my cousin temporarily, walking in the snow to take the train and the bus, going to school and working. I am so proud of myself for not giving up. I could have quickly gone back to Vietnam for a much more comfortable life. When I write this, I can attest that all the things I did to get to where I am now were 100% worth it.
#4 You should not feel ashamed for following your own path
I have to remind myself of this every day. Growing up in Vietnam, I felt the pressure to fit in like everyone else. I also thought that I needed to change myself to please my parents and society. I was so unhappy. I can say that I am happy to be here in America. I feel free to be who I want to be. There are no limits to what I can do. No one knows or cares who my mother is. I get to be who I truly am. I understand that the situation would be different had I continue to live in Vietnam.
#5 You should not feel ashamed for your unconventional college path
My college journey was full of ups and downs. It was never linear. I dropped out, went back to Vietnam and then went back to America. I felt insecure about my college journey because it was not the typical four-year college experience that I saw my friends have. It was different, but in the end, it made me who I am today. I grew a lot during those tough times. I came across this quote yesterday when I read about an Olympic swimmer who won her first gold medal. She said:
“I used to watch the other swimmers. But then I ignored them. Now I swim in my own races.”
Swim in your own race. It’s okay if you are not following the same path everyone is. You are not meant to anyway.
I hope this post will remind you to do the best you can with what you have. I know how easy it is to compare yourself to others. But you are doing the best that you can. Even if you feel that your finances are not okay right now, you can work hard and get out of it.
Put your head down and keep working.
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