Charlotte student’s journey from jungles of Vietnam to prestigious Gates scholarship

When 18-year-old Guin Thi graduated from West Charlotte High Saturday, she showed just how successful an immigrant child can be, despite coming from a home where English is rarely spoken.

Her family is from Vietnam and speaks the Bunong language, yet she was inducted into the National Honor Society (with a 3.87 grade point average) and won a full college scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

She will attend Appalachian State University in Boone this fall, pursuing a degree in architecture.

The Gates foundation says 53,000 teens applied for Gates Millennium Scholarships and only 1 in 5 were successful.

“My parents didn’t really understand,” says Thi. “They were happy for me, but didn’t really know what it meant.”

Such is the reality faced by many of Charlotte’s immigrant teens, who often go home to a culturally different world. Within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, more than 37,170 students speak a language other than English at home. In all, CMS students speak 187 different languages.

Thi actually speaks three: Bunong, Vietnamese and English, and she’s learning Spanish.

That’s impressive by American standards, but she says learning languages quickly is a survival skill for minority groups such as the Bunong, a forest people who live in the remote mountainous region of Vietnam, bordering Cambodia.

She had to learn Vietnamese to attend school in Vietnam, and then when she was 8, the family moved to California. School administrators in California underestimated her abilities, however. “I was a fifth-grader, but they put me in kindergarten,” she says. “It was embarrassing and I cried a lot in class. I wanted to quit.”

Thi, who is a member of Charlotte’s Southeast Asian Coalition, will be the first in her family to attend college. Her parents have 10 children in all, but only seven made it to the United States. The three who remain in Vietnam are carving out a living as best they can and Thi says it’s unclear when, or if, they’ll ever see them again.

Her mother, Ai Thi, and father, Nkraih Dieu, are both in fragile health, so two of her older brothers are working jobs to support the family. Both siblings previously graduated from West Charlotte, she says.

“They are all counting on me to make a difference for the family,” says Thi. “I’m the one going to college, but they believe my success will be a success for the entire family, even the ones still in Vietnam. If I succeed, they all succeed.”

Teachers at West Charlotte understood the significance of her getting into college, and they’re the ones who found potential scholarship dollars and helped her fill out the applications. (Students at the school got got 137 different scholarships this year, totaling more than $4.5 million.)

West Charlotte teacher Jeneise Myrick says you can sum up Thi’s work ethic by noting she graduated as a captain for the varsity tennis team, yet knew nothing of the sport just two years ago.

“She was the kind of student you had to tell to go home from practice, because she refused to leave,” says Myrick. “How can you not want to help a child with such dedication? A child who never ceases to show up smiling and ready to work hard?”

Everything about Thi’s life in Charlotte is a stark contrast to her lifestyle in Vietnam. She was raised in a village, where the concept of poor vs. rich had no meaning. Thi would attend school by day, then come home to forage for food in dangerous jungles or work in rice fields to make extra money to help support her family.

For fun, she says they rode an ox around the village.

It was at age 8 that Thi got her first glimpse of a city, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. It happened at night, when the family was leaving the jungle and headed to the airport for their trip to the United States. She’s never forgotten the sight of a horizon full of lighted skyscrapers, glittering against the night sky.

Her dream now is to build her own skyscrapers.