Rainier scholars look toward college, hopes, and dreams

By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Rainier Scholars Carolyn Tran (left) and Andy Nguyen (center left) with fellow Cohort V students. (Photo by Jerry Davis)

If there’s one thing Rainier Scholars are, it’s motivated.

Maybe it’s because of the rough background many of them came from, the struggles and adversities their parents had to go through to see that they got a good education, their unique identities tied to their diverse backgrounds, or the way they have learned to work with and inspire one another despite differences. Maybe it’s all of the above.

In any case, in a room packed full of ambitious young people for the Rainier Scholars graduation banquet at the Space Needle last week, there was not a soul who was not reaching for their dreams.

Rainier Scholars is an 11-year program that looks for “highly motivated and extremely hard-working students of color from low-income backgrounds.” The program puts students through the wringer: placing them in academic boot camp and rigorous school programs while helping them apply to college.

While most students take a breather in the summer, the Rainier Scholars continue their schooling through the break.

Many students at the graduation dinner lamented that all they wanted to do was have fun like their friends. But, many of them added, Rainier Scholars was not an experience they would give up.

The program has a high success rate. 95 percent of students — 80 percent of which come from low-income families — get placed in advanced learning programs in school, 100 percent graduate from high school, and 100 percent get accepted into college. Over the past five years, the program has placed more than 230 scholars in high school and college internships.

Twenty-five percent of the students from this year’s graduating scholars are Asian and Pacific Islander.

Piecing together broken dreams

For Carolyn Tran, a graduate of Northwest School and a Gates Millennium Scholar, Rainier Scholars helped provide an opportunity her parents didn’t have.

Tran is first generation Vietnamese American. Before the Vietnam War turned her parents’ lives upside down, they had high ambitions of becoming a lawyer and a doctor. Her parents came to America to give their children a chance to live a life that they themselves were not able to.

“I feel like because the war broke so many of their dreams that I have to, not duplicate, but create a new legacy for my family’s history,” Tran said.

But not everything was easy once Tran’s family came to America. Tran’s father left before she was born, leaving her mother to provide and raise her single-handedly.

“She’s always supported me in my educational journeys and all my life in general. She’s always pushed me,” Tran said. “She definitely is the most important figure in my life. She has lost so much in her life, but her unconditional love has helped motivate me to become a better person to help people.”

Tran will be attending Macalester College, a very highly regarded liberal arts school, in St. Paul, Minnesota to pursue a career in the medical sciences, possibly as a pediatrician or a dentist. She said looking after her cousins, along with her experiences as a volunteer for the Seattle Chinese Athletic Association, has given her an interest in pediatrics and looking after other people.

Tran said she would not have gotten all of the opportunities she has had without the Rainier Scholars program. Graduating from it was a big milestone in her life.

“It feels amazing because I was in the program about 11 years … graduating from high school was kind of surreal,” she said.

Getting accepted into her dream school

When Tho Tran (unrelated to Carolyn) was accepted into Yale, a university she had talked about going to all her life, the moment was surreal.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Yale. It’s the first school I ever heard of when I was three years old. You can ask my elementary teachers and they’ll say I always wanted to go to Yale,” she said.

Still, it was hard to process when she read the acceptance letter.

“I stared at the page for quite a while, trying to figure it out. I don’t think I quite comprehended it until people started congratulating me like a week later,” she said. “It was easy to talk about wanting to get into this school because it was so distant, passable, that it almost became this laughing matter.”

Tran, who attended Lakeside High School, is Chinese through way of Vietnam. She plans to study “molecular cellular developmental biology,” which she said is actually the name of the concentration.

Particularly, she is interested in global health, though hasn’t quite settled from which perspective. Whether it be public policy, research, or something maybe a little more hands-on, she enjoys all of the aspects.

One event that inspired her is when she got sick in Vietnam while visiting in the 5th grade. She saw firsthand the state of conditions at one of their “premier hospitals.”

“It was fairly run down by Seattle standards. … What struck me is how exhausted everyone was,” she said, adding that they often lacked resources. “It’s a sad place to be.”

Doctors were never able to find out why she was sick, which she said gave her more reason to be skeptical.

The event made her interested in taking a closer look at global health, especially in Southeast Asia, with a focus on the local level.

“Something always fascinated me about local clinics, how effective they are. Communities really need them,” she said. “… When you actually start working at the local level, you start effecting bigger change.”

From internships and listening to speakers such as Melinda Gates to getting accepted into Yale, Tran has nothing to blame but Rainier Scholars for her success.

“I don’t think any student would say it has not been the most impactful thing in their lives,” Tran said. “… It’s empowering. It changes your perspective.”

Opening doors

Andy Nguyen’s time with Rainier Scholars has made him who he is today.

“Rainier Scholars has helped me quite a lot with my time through high school,” said Nguyen, who said he experienced a lot of stress between family, school, and extracurricular activities. “I found a support system here.”

Nguyen graduated from Garfield High School, is a Nordstrom scholarship winner and a Key Club leader on the regional level. He will be attending the University of Washington to double major in philosophy and biology, with an end goal of going to dental school.

“It’s providing that service to others, which is what I would really like to do,” he said.

Like Carolyn Tran and Tho Tran, Nguyen is also first generation born in the United States. His parents came to America from Vietnam to find opportunity. His mother was unable to finish high school and his father was unable to finish grade school as a result of the Vietnam War.

“It makes me feel very privileged to know they came here to America so I could have more opportunities,” Nguyen said.

At first, Nguyen was wary of Rainier Scholars and having to give up his summer for it. But once he was accepted, he said he was happy and that his mom was very proud.

“It opened up many doors for me I didn’t think I could go through,” Nguyen said. “Before Rainier Scholars, I didn’t really challenge myself that much. It really shaped me into the scholar I am today.” (end)

Zachariah Bryan can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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