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'I had won my battle': DSST Summer Fellow shares why she is dedicated to helping other students

A post by Katie Le, a DSST Summer Fellow and DSST: College View alumna.

"Katie Le, please come to receive your award," announced the school director. Hearing my name, I stepped closer to obtaining my recognition of excellence, while the auditorium echoed the claps and cheers of my classmates and teachers. I smiled in the direction of my mom as her eyes glistened like a river at night, watching me proudly under the auditorium's luminous light.

In the fall of 2015, my mother and I emigrated from Vietnam with dreams of better opportunities. My transition to American school combined with my lack of English and American knowledge was challenging. I was unable to respond to simple questions like “How old are you?”, let alone decipher the subtle differences between “flower” and “flour.” With the realization that I was a minority in my new country, every day was a battle of adjusting to American society. From the public streets to inside school buildings, people mocked my misunderstanding of the American norms, like saying “excuse me” after sneezing. I became increasingly isolated and dejected from the treatment of my peers. Yet, despite these unrelenting challenges, I have continued to trust my capability and persevere in my future.

Transferring to a new school, the insides of my stomach felt queasy. The ambient noises from the students around me faded out as the colors from my vision started to blend into one subtle gray color. I took long, deep breaths and opened the door to my first class. My clouded vision cleared, and I exhaled with relief as several classmates, including three Vietnamese students, introduced themselves and guided me to my classes. They spoke in my native tongue when my understanding was unclear and comforted me through my struggles. Meanwhile, the teachers continued to advance my English, reassured my doubts, and encouraged me to be courageous. As my teachers patiently addressed my questions and supported my adjustments to the school, I felt a sense of comfort. Little by little, they brought me into their world. It was the first time that I felt welcomed in America.

Before ninth grade started, I had spent the entirety of my summer learning English and preparing for the upcoming year. Like a baby learning how to speak for the first time, I imitated the mouth movements and sounds of the words projected from American YouTube videos and endlessly practiced grammar and reading from the famous learning site, Khan Academy. In the following year, I excelled academically, and with confidence in my mastery of English, I began to tutor struggling students with their studies. Maintaining a high GPA and becoming accustomed to seeing my exams on the classroom walls of stellar scores, I felt a strong sense of gratitude towards my friends and teachers. I ended the school year ranked at the top in my class. I had won my battle.

I felt the presence of the crowd’s stares as my teacher handed me my award. Grateful for the overwhelming crowd of smiles, my heart was home once again. From that day on, I made it my mission to give back to my community by continuing to tutor students who are struggling with their courses and participating in the Student Council committee to improve the school conditions and make it a home for everyone. My identity is forever cherished with the profound memories I have made throughout these distinctive yet complex years. I seek to share my experience to welcome people just as others have welcomed me.