Staff Photo: John Bohn Huyen Nguyen is a swimmer and track hurdler at Meadowcreek High School. Nguyen has been named Meadowcreek's STAR student for making the school's highest SAT score. She will attend Emory University on a scholarship.
Huyen Nguyen is well educated.
Through a lot of the usual ways -- AP classes, work, student council president, community service, sports.
But she also wrote checks and managed bills when she was still in junior high.
She acted as a translator at doctors appointments and parent-teacher conferences.
Huyen Nguyen, whose name is pronounced win win, knows how different everyone's background can be. Because Nguyen has been her mother's link to much of the world for years. It's more than having English as a second language. Her mom, raised in Vietnam, is illiterate.
"For me, I didn't really think of it as a setback," said Nguyen, a STAR student graduating today from Meadowcreek. "It was just my role in life. But it was more this year when I thought of it with a new perspective. We read this article in my AP language class. It was about illiteracy and how so many people have to go through the day to day with small troubles. Like going to the grocery store. It hit me. I was like, 'Wow. This is what my mom has to go through.'
"When I was little, I didn't think of it -- because that was our life. It was how things were. But then I realized she did have all these setbacks. Even at work, even around people who were from her country and didn't speak as much English either would have a small advantage over her if they went back to school."
Her mom, Phi Ho, can't go to school right now. She's too busy working and supporting two kids.
But it is Nguyen's driving ambition to make sure that happens one day.
"Right now it's really difficult for me and my brother to try and help her ourselves," she said. "She goes to work at 8:30 in the morning and we're already at school. Before she comes home, she tries to get a little exercise in. So she gets off work at 8:30, goes to the gym for about an hour and doesn't get home until 10.
"But the small things we can do, like helping her with the addresses and amounts on checks. I try to make her little cheat sheets about numbers and stuff. So we definitely try."
Nguyen is going to Emory in the fall to study business.
"First, so I can make a good living for myself, but also so I can support my mother," the petite dynamo said. "After that I want to do philanthropic work, but I want to send her back to school. Because I don't feel like there should be an age where you can't go back to school."
Much of Nguyen's college education will be paid for with scholarships and grants -- earned through her academic record mostly, but hardly hurt by the long list of extra-curriculars on her resume.
"I was lucky enough -- and I was thinking this wasn't the best way to put it -- but the one time it helps to be a little under middle class is when you're applying for scholarships," Nguyen said with an endearing laugh. "Because they take into consideration your family needs."
She's getting the full amount for the Pell grant and plans to do work study. It's not a full ride, but it's pretty close -- especially at a prestigious, private university like Emory.
"I'm just really thankful," said Nguyen, who speaks English, Vietnamese and Latin fluently. "My mom wants us to get as much education as we can, but being by herself, it's really going to be difficult for her to cover two children. So I want to make that burden on her as light as possible."
Emory ranks among the nation's top 20 colleges, but it has the added advantage of being 30 minutes from her mom's house.
"At first I was really thinking I wanted to get out of the state because I wanted to travel," Nguyen said. "But my mother really had her heart set on me staying here -- which was completely fine with me. I can still go back and forth."
Nguyen, who works three part-time jobs, was also a finalist for the Gates Millennium Scholarship. She was nominated by her coach in swimming, a sport she only picked up two years ago after getting into organized athletics as a freshman.
Always involved at school in student government and other clubs, Nguyen started running cross country. Because someone told her she couldn't.
"I didn't have an innate interest in sports, I just liked to have fun and be active," Nguyen said. "But then a boy who did cross country told me it was the hardest thing ever and I couldn't do it even if I tried."
She made the cross country team and joined track a year later.
"Once I started cross country, I was like, this feels really, really good," Nguyen said. "The first time we did a 10-mile run, that feeling of accomplishment when you finish outweighs the physical exhaustion you feel.
"After seeing how I was more in shape and how my body felt healthier altogether, I didn't want to stop at a cross country. I started track because it wasn't too far of a stretch and then one of my track coaches decided to start coaching swimming. So I decided to try that."
It became her favorite. Nguyen swam the 50- and 100-yard freestyles, two relays and was a senior captain this season.
Running and swimming allowed Nguyen, whose days are packed with things to worry about, time to clear her head.
"When you're running cross country all you're thinking about is getting up that hill," she said. "Or getting to the finish line. You don't really have a chance to think about everything else while your body is working so hard."
But she also takes on more responsibilities.
"My coach has a lot of stress," Nguyen said. "I feel like he's the adult version of me. But he's doing so much and it makes me want to ignore all my busyness and try to take a load off him by helping other members of the team.
"It helps me try to put my other issues aside."
None of her many accomplishments was done with the idea it would pad her resume or look good during the college application process."I was in student government since I was in the fifth grade," Nguyen said. "I did it because it was fun. I wanted to do more organizations because I like talking to people and those things let you go interact beyond your classmates. I usually have the same classmates in my AP classes. So those are my opportunities to meet more people.
"I joined so many clubs and organizations, I didn't have the college resume thing on my mind. And the sports, the boy in the ninth grade challenged me and after that, I just loved it. I didn't have it in mind when I started."
She might not have, but it doesn't keep her from using it as motivation for getting other students involved.
"I feel bad when there are people who go through high school and haven't joined one organization, I feel like they're really missing out," Nguyen said. "I feel like sports and organizations, they really made my high school experience. Because they helped me discover so much about myself."
More than school or student council or sports, though, she learned at home. That not everyone grows up with advantages. That even a basic education isn't guaranteed in some places.
"My mother has been used to being disadvantaged," Nguyen said. "In Vietnam, you have to pay for your education. They don't have that public system that they're able to go no matter what is going on at home. So she couldn't even really finish grade school.
"I feel like in the Vietnamese culture, parents judge themselves based on what their children do and how much their children give back to them. So I want her to know she did an amazing job."