Wyoming — Wyoming High School senior Duc Ngan Chau knows how difficult it can be for new immigrants to navigate life in the United States.
When she first arrived in Michigan from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, she was the translator for her family. “My English back then wasn’t very good,” Ngan said. “I usually messed things up.”
She remembers trying to set up the heat for their new home with the utility company, but she provided incorrect information. “We sat shivering in the Michigan winter,” she recalled. “I was very frustrated.”
That was just two years ago, when Ngan, her brother, Nguyen and her father, Hau Kham Chau, and mother, Nguyet Minh Duong, arrived in Michigan, sponsored by relatives.
Ngan, then a junior, wanted very much to improve her English but declined to receive English language learner services, instead jumping into a slate of difficult classes including AP biology and AP statistics. She joined the high school Business Professionals of America team, for which students compete in business-related categories. A gifted student, she studied hard, learning English on her own and delving into her classes.
“I think my main motivation is my family, because they worked very hard for me to get here. My transition helped me understand the responsibilities of a young adult to help my parents achieve the American Dream. My motivation was to help them, to help myself, to move us up.”
College Choices Await
To say Ngan has overcome language barriers and other obstacles of succeeding in the U.S as a newcomer is a huge understatement.
With a 4.19 GPA, she graduates May 25, with full-ride college scholarship offers from the University of Michigan, Grand Valley State University, Vanderbilt University and Brown University. She is also wait-listed at Duke University and Harvard University and was offered the Western Michigan University Medallion Scholarship, the university’s most prestigious merit-based scholarship for undergraduates. It is valued at $64,000 across four years ($16,000 per year). Each year, WMU selects a cohort of 20 Medallion Scholars. (WyomingHigh School senior Zabihullah “Zabi” Najafi is also a recipient.) She has not yet decided where to enroll.
‘Instead of forgetting about my past, I use it to forge my future.’— senior Duc Ngan Chau
Ngan has middle class roots in Vietnam, but here, her family struggles. Her mom works many hours at a factory to support the family and her father has health issues, she said.
“Attending a top college like U of M or other Ivy League institutions, for me, is a dream that I can reach (despite) my background and my status. No one would have ever thought of me doing this. My self doubt has really faded away and I am getting more confident in my background and my story. Instead of forgetting about my past, I use it to forge my future.”
Math teacher Eric Retan said he has thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Ngan. “She’s one of the most dedicated and deep thinking students I’ve ever taught,” he said. “Her incredible work ethic and persistence have helped her to thrive in our school the past two years… She’s a breath of fresh air in my class every day, entering with a smile and a contagious curiosity. She asks tough questions and makes those around her better.”
English teacher Melanie Johnston-Butts said she has seen Ngan come out of her shell and shine bright.
“Her English is near perfect; I would not know she was an English language learner if she had not told me. This is partially because she works very, very hard to turn in the best work. She’s well-spoken in class too, always willing to participate in small group discussions. She was hesitant to talk in front of the class at first, but now she’s up in front of people; she has a nice sense of confidence but she’s never overly-confident. She told me a little about her schooling in Vietnam, now it was very strict and rigorous. She feels much more free to be herself here, and I think she’s given herself the opportunity to find herself, if that makes sense.
“I am amazed at how talented she is, and how kind.”
An Interest in Science and Business
Ngan has always thrived in school, and she picked up where she left off in Vietnam. A star student there, she won a major biology award in 10th grade and had a burgeoning interest in business.
Her first business venture was altruistic: she worked to raise money for orphans, of which there are approximately 2 million in Vietnam due to war and poverty, a fact that troubled Ngan.
“I was very lucky to have both parents. I used my experience to raise money by selling plastic book covers at my high school,” she said. “We raised $2 million in Vietnamese money (about $87 American). The money helped refurbish the orphanage.”
Along with continuing AP courses at Wyoming, Ngan is a member of the MIT Online Science, Technology and Engineering Community, a six-month online program and short conference that serves 100 to 120 rising high school seniors from across the country. For that, she interviews research scientists for an article on how adolescents in disadvantaged neighborhoods show epigenetic dysregulation. “It means the environments that we live in can affect our health and well being,” she explained.
Now, as Ngan considers which college to attend, she plans to double major in biomedicine and business. She hopes to one day improve health care services and connect people in low-income areas to them. Navigating health care for her parents has been difficult, she said.
“My dream job would be a clinical coordinator to connect patients in underserved communities with resources,” she said.
As for business, Ngan said she has come a long way in her ability to speak confidently, and her presentation skills. She has won 18 BPA medals. She recently qualified for the national competition, which is virtual, in six categories.
“Her passions to excel and make her family proud are very genuine and honorable,” said business teacher and BPA adviser Jonathan Bushen. “She has a bright future and I am excited to see the path that she blazes.”
Ngan said her family’s dream and her dream for herself was to have a good education.
“My story, my family’s situation, and the challenges my family has gone through has made me stand out in the college admissions process,” she said. “I really think my resilience to bounce back and my openness to learning has really earned me these scholarships.”