From Vietnam to Western Carolina State University

Po Rmah came with her family to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam when she was 7 years old. Last week, she began classes at Western Carolina State University, receiving the John R. Kernodle scholarship and becoming the first person in her family to enroll in a 4-year college. Today, she took the time to talk with me:

Q. How are classes going?
A. It’s going great so far. I’m taking six classes, including labs, and it seems like I’ll be able to do very well in class this semester.

Q. What classes are you taking?
A. Spanish—intermediate Spanish because I took several Spanish classes during High school. Also, a health class, finance, environmental biology, and two first-year seminar classes. One of them is called Teacher, School, and Society, which is for the teaching track.

Q. Are you interested in teaching then?
A. I want to be an elementary school teacher. Coming to the U.S., I had so many people help me grow and learn English. There’s not really one teacher I had in school that made me want to become a teacher, but rather the whole experience of having people support me in learning. Teaching is a way to give back. But if anyone had an influence on me wanting to become a teacher, it was my American mom Laurie and everything she did for me and my family.

Q. How did you first meet Laurie?
A. I first met her at a Vacation Bible School over the summer that my church, United Montagnard Christian Church, put together. There were different volunteers that came and taught English. Laurie was one of them. That was the first time our families met. Later, her family invited my family to eat dinner at their house. Laurie served baked spaghetti—and it’s been my favorite dish ever since.

Q. How are you feeling about starting college?
A. I was definitely nervous last week with the whole moving in and meeting new people. Just from it being a new experience, I was feeling all sorts of emotions. I’m definitely excited now. I miss my family, but it’s exciting to be on my own, too. I have two sisters and four brothers, so it’s nice not having my little brother wake me up in the morning.

Q. How was move-in day?
A. It was good. My mom and older sister helped move me into my dorm as well as my American mom and dad, Laurie and Stephen. I have one roommate from Charlotte who is really nice. We had never met before last week, but we had talked to plan out what we needed to bring and what we were going to share.

Q. Are you planning on joining any clubs or getting involved in particular things around campus?
A. Yeah, I already joined Campus Rock, which is a Christian fellowship group. I wanted a church group that would be for young people going through the same experiences. So far, they’ve had cookouts, hikes, hang outs, bowling…It’s been really fun.

Q. Had you ever been on your own away from home before starting college?
A. Yes, last summer I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic through a program called CIEE. It was a service-learning and leadership program with high school students from all over the United States. We did community service in the morning and had classes in the afternoon.

Q. So, you’re in a new place at college. New friends. No one knows that you came to the United States as a refugee. How do you introduce yourself and how do you want people to know you?
A. It all depends on how the person approaches me. If they are just asking me where’s my hometown, I say, “Greensboro.” If they show further interest and seem curious, then I will tell my story. I will always be happy to tell people my story because it is part of who I am. Being here for the past two weeks, I have already shared my story a couple of times.

Q. Taking us back, what were things you remember being most helpful during your transition to life in the United States?
A. I mentioned volunteers over the summer who helped teach English. Also, people continued to come to our house and take us places and practice English. They provided tutoring with homework. That one-on-one time with someone who was American helped us a lot with learning English and the culture.

Q. What advice would you give to newly-arrived refugee children in Greensboro today?
A. At first, everything is going to be super hard because everything is thoroughly new and different from what you’ve been used to. Each and every day you’re going to learn something new. Get used to American culture because you’re going to grow up and identity with that. I’m Asian, but I’m thoroughly American. One day you are going to feel like you were born here and you belong.

Q. How long did it take for you to feel like you belong?
A. It didn’t really take very long. The language barrier was the hardest part. Probably after 3 years and after being able to communicate with others, you get the feeling you belong because you can talk and understand. For me, being around Laurie and her family all this time is probably why I feel like it didn’t take that long to feel like I belong. They were always welcoming and were there for support.

Q. What advice would you give to American-born non-refugees in Greensboro?
A. Take time to see what’s around your community. Even though someone may talk and act the same as you, their story may be very different. Be open-minded and welcome those who are different from you. You can learn from their lives and what they’ve been through.

Q. Who is your hero?
A. My parents. They came here not knowing any English. They were just willing to drop everything they have and do everything they can to support us and help us with all our needs. They’ve been working super hard at that. They are proud now that all of us have accomplished something in our life.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Po! The CWS Team wishes you the best as your start college.