Bi Vuong wins Gates Millennium Scholarship

Bi Vuong, a rising junior at Kenyon, arrived in Ohio from her native Honolulu, Hawaii, without a winter coat, as her Shakespeare professor recalls. Vuong grew up on welfare, the daughter of unemployed Vietnamese parents who speak no English. An Asian (merit) scholarship enabled her to come to Kenyon, but money to buy a coat was scarce. (The coat problem was solved when Bi's friends took her outlet-mall shopping in Cleveland.)

But now, at least, Vuong's education is assured. For she is an inaugural-year winner of a Gates Millennium Scholarship, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which guarantees costs associated with her undergraduate education. Competition for the scholarships was fierce, with over sixty-two thousand applications submitted for the first 4,000 scholarships awarded.

Of the nine children in her family, Vuong, 19, is the only one born in the United States. A political science major, this first-generation American has pursued her dream of acquiring a first-rate education even though that has meant defying the cultural expectations for girls that her parents brought with them from Vietnam. Only three of Vuong's older siblings, all of them male, have obtained a college education, and none before her has attended a private or mainland college. It required some secrecy on Vuong's part to complete the college application and interviewing process, but she persevered. "Even if my parents had the money-and they don't-I could not ask them to support me in getting a college education, because they don't approve of it," she says. To this day, her parents do not know that Vuong achieved a 4.0 grade point average in high school.

The Gates Millennium Scholars program seeks to promote academic excellence and to provide an opportunity for thousands of outstanding students from low-income minority families to reach their fullest potential. Among other qualities, the program looks for evidence of leadership potential in applicants, as well as a record of community service, with the expectation that scholarship winners will later assume important roles in their professions and in their communities. The program, administered by the United Negro College Fund in partnership with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the American Indian College Fund, will award 20,000 Gates Millennium Scholarships during the twenty-year span of the program.

Taking the path of greatest resistance has become a way of life, almost a philosophy, for Vuong. In a sense, this underlay her decision to attend Kenyon over two other colleges that offered her comparable financial assistance. "The other two colleges really wined and dined me when I went to visit, but I chose Kenyon because it was more sincere. During my visit I stayed with a student, sleeping on the floor of her somewhat messy room. It was so real! I felt that this was what college was really going to be like, and only Kenyon was willing to give me a taste of that. I wanted more."

Similarly, Vuong has chosen political science as her major, in part because A's don't come easily to her in that subject. Not only could she count on getting A's in math and science, but her first-year chemistry professor assumed she would be majoring in his field because her work was outstanding. At the beginning of the current year, he had given Vuong's name to first-year students who might need tutoring, only to learn that she had declared a different major. "Right now I am having to work very hard just to get B's in political science," Vuong declares, "but I will keep working at it until I bring those grades up. I would rather work for something than have it handed to me. This is just how I am."

While Vuong uses her tenacity and perseverance to achieve distinctly American kinds of success, she has grown up on stories of her own parents' strenuous efforts to secure a better life for their family. They had lived near Danang, on the border between North and South Vietnam. Her father, an orphaned fisherman, went to prison because he refused to fight in the war. Eventually, the family escaped to Hong Kong with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, and from there came by boat to Hawaii. Vuong was born soon after their arrival.

Vuong appreciates Kenyon as a place where "it's O.K. to be different, to have a different opinion or a different point of view. I have friends of many types, those whose parents are paying 100 percent and those more like me, getting lots of support. This is a very accepting college. If you're open enough to voice yourself, your opinions will be heard."

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