As an officer and original member of the Asian Student Union, East Kentwood High School senior Quyen Tran wanted to make an impact by bringing the diverse backgrounds, customs and traditions of Asia together into one big festival.
So she made it happen. Last fall’s Asian Festival was designed after a street party offering stations of food from local restaurants — cuisine from Nepal, India, China, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Thailand. It was a big hit, filling the school with dance, art and music honoring many of the Asian cultures that are represented at EK.
“I wanted it to be a breakthrough for the Asian Community so people see students actually care about where they come from and their community,” she said.
Quyen and her peers soon decided to take things a step further. They planned the Relief Initiative and Cultural Engagement (RICE) Festival as a followup to the Asian Festival, this time with the purpose of raising money for the West Michigan Refugee Education Center.
“After leading this group for a year. I realize what makes a group really impactful and meaningful is what they can do for the community,” said Quyen over FaceTime from her home.
Though the March event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is still part of Quyen’s legacy. She hopes elevating the work of the ASU into areas of community-building and fundraising will allow it to continue to have lasting effects.
A Focused Student Who Gives Back
Quyen is the type of go-getter who works tirelessly toward her goals, whether it be planning a festival or acing calculus.
She graduates from East Kentwood (official graduation plans are still to be determined due to the pandemic) with a 4.33 GPA and a 1480 SAT. She is headed this fall to Harvard University, where she plans to major in biostatistics and become active in student groups and happenings.
While at East Kentwood, she also played violin in the band and orchestra, was in National Honor Society and a NHS tutor. She also tutored Pinewood Middle School eighth graders in math, volunteered at the Dutton Community Food Pantry and worked at Celebration Cinema.
‘I have never seen any student handle leadership as well as Quyen.’— Le Tran, art teacher and Asian Student Union adviser
But Quyen’s goals are broader than good grades and achievements. She is always thinking about making her mark on the world in a way that improves others’ lives, and she credits that to her humble roots.
Quyen’s parents, mom Huong Khong and dad Quang Tran, and two older sisters immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1998 as refugees. Quyen and another sister were born in the U.S.
Her parents — her mom works in a factory and dad is laid off — instilled in their daughters the importance of education. “They definitely put into me that knowledge is freedom. When we moved here there were so many things out of our control,” she said.
Quyen, whose household includes her three young nephews, now shares that message. She and her mom pick the boys up from school and Quyen helps them with their homework, a task she knows she will miss in college.
Love from Teachers
Teachers say Quyen leads and takes action in a graceful, caring way.
“She has been a force at EK,” said ASU adviser and art teacher Le Tran. “Not only is she a stellar scholar, she is also a visionary. … I have never seen any student handle leadership as well as Quyen.”
Added English teacher Tracey Kooy, “Quyen leads with kindness and humility. She is engaging and curious and cares about others — students and teachers alike. … She is incredibly independent and is a solution-seeking problem-solver.
“Her warmth makes her approachable and she includes any and all in her friendship circle,” Kooy added. “I am so grateful to know her and am proud of her achievements. I can’t wait to see what she does in her life.”
Multicultural School a Plus
Quyen, whose favorite courses were AP Statistics, AP Calculus and AP Literature, said exposure to Ivy League colleges made her realize it was possible to go to one. She was a member of the College Prep Scholars Program, which connects exceptional, low-income youth with leading colleges and opportunities. She visited Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, for a conference her junior year.
After that, she applied to the nation’s top universities and had interviews with several. When she met the Harvard representative, however, she knew it was the right fit. Instead of focusing on her grades and academic accomplishments, he asked her about growing up in an immigrant home. “He saw that side of me,” Quyen said.
That meant a lot to Quyen, who said part of her journey has involved learning to define what success is to herself. For her, it’s not about money. She said she may become a doctor — a dream her parents also have for her — but she hopes to focus on humanitarian work.
“Especially with the whole pandemic, if there is ever a time to be a doctor for altruistic purposes it is now,” she asserted.
When Quyen looks back at highlights of her educational journey, she said going to a district where students feel free to embrace and celebrate their cultures — such as by hosting a huge festival for the diverse Asian community — has made the difference.
“I really do think it’s because I grew up in Kentwood that I was able to do what I have and what I will be able to accomplish in the future. It is why I was able to have the vision, passion and leadership that I have.”