The three went from being valedictorians, to Community Scholars and now young women dedicated to making the world a better place.
by Lisa Martin Photography by Joyce Marshall
When Thi Nguyen ’15 stood at the podium to deliver her high school’s valedictorian speech, she surprised the audience toward the end of her remarks by switching to Vietnamese.
She addressed her parents in the language of their homeland, thanking them for their steadfast encouragement and sacrifices. Even though most of those sitting in the auditorium spoke English or Spanish, the crowd responded to the emotion behind her words, if not their actual meaning. Tears flowed in the auditorium, including from Thi.
Two years later at the same high school, Nguyet “Nikki” Nguyen ’17 also switched to Vietnamese for a few moments during her valedictorian speech to express gratitude to her parents.
Three years later at the same high school, Thi and Nikki’s younger sister followed suit. “I was doing so well in my speech until I got to the Vietnamese part, and then I started sobbing,” said My Le, a junior criminal justice major. “I’m glad we don’t have video of it.”
“At least you didn’t ugly-cry as hard as me,” said Thi with a shake of her head.
“That was bad,” said Nikki, grinning.
The three sisters share an easy camaraderie that hints at their deep bond, which they say only grew stronger as each accepted a full scholarship to attend TCU — each sister became a Community Scholar.
From left: My Le, Thi Nguyen, Timeka Gordon and Nikki Nguyen. Gordon is the director of Inclusiveness and Intercultural Services and the Community Scholars Program, and the sisters regard her as their “TCU mom.” Photo by Joyce Marshall
“Those three are very different but very close,” said Timeka Gordon, director of inclusiveness and intercultural services and the Community Scholars Program. “I look at them as individuals and am in awe, but when they are together, they’re magical.”
The sisters’ parents were born in the 1960s in war-torn Vietnam and came to Texas in a wave of immigration that followed in the aftermath. Loan Nguyen and her husband, Vu Le, raised five children in south Fort Worth.
“Mom got so angry if we spoke English,” said Thi, who started school speaking only Vietnamese and remained in English as a Second Language classes until the third grade. “But a lot of our friends who grew up in homes where they spoke English now don’t speak Vietnamese anymore and struggle to understand.”
“It was a point of pride with Mom,” said Nikki, who used early-reader books as a kindergartner to help teach herself English. Like her sisters, My was a motivated student from the start. By the time each of the sisters entered Fort Worth’s Polytechnic High School, teachers had identified them as gifted and dedicated.
“But even back in elementary school, I remember teachers pushing me more than they pushed other students,” Thi said. “They really believed in me, but I also didn’t give myself room to slack. One reason was I had siblings who looked up to me, and I didn’t want to let them down.”
As a high school senior, Thi often stayed up well past midnight with schoolwork. Nikki and My embraced their sister’s intense work ethic, too.
“We were diligent kids who went above and beyond,” Nikki said. “In my mind we’ve achieved what we have because we work hard.”
The wider community took note. School officials report that the sisters represent the only time in Polytechnic High School’s 100-year history where three students from the same family finished first in their classes.
“This is a wonderful example of how influential siblings and family can be to one another,” said Nick Torrez, principal of Polytechnic High School. “Thi set the bar high by becoming the first valedictorian in her family, then the other two sisters stepped up to the challenge and accomplished that same level of distinction. This story continues to be told in the hallways of Poly by teachers and students.”
When Thi received her acceptance into TCU’s Community Scholars Program, “I signed that letter of intent so quickly and then had to explain it to my parents, who didn’t grasp the magnitude of what it meant.”
In addition to full tuition, Community Scholars receive housing and living expenses as long as they maintain a strong academic record. By spring 2018, the program had grown to include a full stipend for books.
“My parents didn’t have any extra money for college for us,” said Nikki, who received more than a half-million dollars in college scholarship offers but ultimately chose TCU. “Growing up, my mom told us lots of stories about the education she always wanted herself but wasn’t able to have because she had to drop out. Education is something she cherished, but there was no way my family could afford tuition at a private college for one, let alone all of us.”
Oldest sister Thi Nguyen said she almost dropped out of TCU because of the intense culture shock. Photo by Joyce Marshall
At TCU’s freshman orientation, Thi began to worry about what campus life would be like. “I hated orientation, which was only one night away from home,” she said. “Our house is loud, and at TCU I felt so alone.”
But the scholarship contract stipulated that she live on campus — for all four years.
“Thi did struggle trying to find her place, but she’s a genuine fighter, and I am not sure even she knew that before she was tested,” Gordon said. “At Poly, she was surrounded by diversity and by other students of color. It was hard for her to make that transition.”
Thi said she felt physically and mentally isolated. “If I’d even had one other person at TCU from where I came from, it would have made a huge difference.”
Although the social piece was the most problematic for Thi, she also had to step up her academic game. “I wasn’t prepared for college life and didn’t know how to study efficiently,” she said.
One thing that made a significant difference was finding an academic area that she felt passionate about. “When I took Introduction to Social Work, I fell in love with the subject,” Thi said. “It was something I’d never even heard of before.”
“She was quiet at first, but we developed a good rapport,” said James Petrovich, chair and associate professor of social work, who met Thi early in his teaching career. “She was very consistent and super solid in her work but also lighthearted and fun with a desire to serve.”
Yet Thi remained ambivalent about TCU until early in her junior year. Her attitude shifted in the wake of an unpleasant encounter at her off-campus job. Most Community Scholars are limited to working 10 hours a week on campus, but Thi (and later Nikki) asked for an exemption so she could take a second, 15-hour-a-week job because of financial need.
One morning around 7 at Thi’s job at a drugstore, a customer pointed at a pack of cigarettes behind the counter. When Thi grabbed the wrong brand, the man unleashed a profanity-laced tirade. “It was like a switch was flipped inside me,” Thi said. “I thought there was no way I was going to work a job like this for the rest of my life — all because of TCU.”
Her newfound appreciation for higher education bolstered Thi through the last two years of college. She went on to earn a master’s degree in social work at the University of Texas at Arlington in December 2017.
Nikki credits Thi with helping to make her transition to TCU far smoother. “Four other people came to TCU from Poly with me, which also helped,” said Nikki, who was a freshman during Thi’s junior year.
Personality proved another factor in Nikki’s favor: Of the five siblings, the sisters point to her as the one who most craves time alone.
Middle sister Nguyet “Nikki” Nguyen says that TCU “saved” her and her sisters. Photo by Joyce Marshal
“Nikki is a firecracker, what I like to refer to as a radical revolutionary, someone who is all about equality and social justice,” said Gordon. “She’s a warrior and a fighter and unapologetically brilliant but is also all about giving people a fair chance in this life.”
When Nikki wanted to study abroad, it was Thi who fought for the younger sister’s opportunity. “I did not get much support from my parents when I said that I wanted to go overseas, and I’ve regretted not pushing for it,” Thi said. “So I was not going to let anything stop Nikki when she wanted to spend a semester in London.”
Nikki enjoyed the experience so much that she went to Sweden to study as well. Both at European universities and on campus, she pursued her love of history with curiosity and enthusiasm.
“During her senior seminar, Nikki turned in one of the best papers I had that semester in terms of its intellectual depth,” said Claire Sanders, senior instructor of history and co-director of African American and Africana Studies. “As a point of pride, I make sure the papers I hand back have to have one critical mark on it. I remember needing to read Nikki’s paper twice to find any criticism. It was that masterful.”
“I also valued Nikki’s commitment to giving back to her community,” said Alex Hidalgo, assistant professor of history and director of undergraduate studies. “Many students participate in public service projects as a way to fulfill a requirement or to pad their résumés. Nikki did it because she recognized the value of good mentorship and because she wanted to empower young students of diverse backgrounds like herself.”
Nikki was a senior when My arrived at TCU. “My is the best of both of her sisters,” Gordon said. “She possesses her own strength and has the mind of a scientist but also got the wisdom and insight from both Thi and Nikki on how to navigate TCU.”
Youngest sister My Le is a junior criminal justice major. Photo by Joyce Marshall
Whenever My felt lonely or discouraged, she would bring a pizza to Nikki’s room. “That was my way in when I would feel homesick, even though campus is only about 10 minutes away from my parents,” she said. “I visited Nikki a lot.”
As Nikki did before her, My works in Cultural, Community & International Services at TCU. My also prioritizes participating in campus life. “I always believe that you get out what you put in, so if you don’t go to any campus events or put in effort to talk to people, you won’t establish a community,” she said.
“The best moments at TCU for me are the late-night events. TCU isn’t just about school. It’s about building friendships.”
The youngest of the three sisters excels in the classroom with rare focus, said Stacie Merken, lecturer in criminal justice. “My truly wants to learn and understands the importance of needing all of this knowledge in real life. She is also really committed to diversity and inclusiveness.”
When My graduates, the criminal justice major expects also to have minors in anthropology and psychology. She plans to attend graduate school. “I grew up watching Forensic Files instead of cartoons, and it’s still the most interesting thing I have ever come across, so I want to pursue it.”
“For a freshman, the discussion of graduate school showed her early maturity and focus on the future, which is not typical of most students starting off college,” Merken said.
Nikki Nguyen teaches eighth-grade social studies at Meacham Middle School. Photo by Joyce Marshall
Nikki transformed her love of studying history to teaching eighth-graders at Meacham Middle School in Fort Worth.
She also helps her students navigate complex issues in their lives. “These kids struggle with a lot, everything from boy problems to depression and suicidal thoughts, so it’s crucial for them to have a strong support system,” she said.
While Nikki relishes her quiet time as much as ever, she leaves her classroom door open at lunch, and the students drop in. “Sometimes they want to talk. Sometimes they just want to sit,” she said. “I recuperate over the weekend and at nights, but when I’m at school I’m all about making someone’s life a little better.”
Nikki’s colleagues say the young teacher puts her Spanish minor to use by repeating each day’s lesson for the non-English-speaking students. Moreover, she works hard to present her subject to all of her students in an interesting and accessible way.
“I look at them as individuals and am in awe, but when they are together, they’re magical.”Timeka Gordon, director of inclusiveness and intercultural services and the Community Scholars Program
“I was walking down the halls one day, and there was a lot of noise coming from her classroom,” said Oscar Martinez, Meacham principal. “When I went to check, I saw she had the kids split into two teams, doing a Jeopardy game where they argued back and forth, justifying their answers. By the end of the year, her students showed remarkable growth. She’s phenomenal with them.”
Thi Nguyen works as a counselor for at-risk students at Azle High School. Photo by Joyce Marshall
Thi, who minored in child development at TCU, spent three academic years as a project manager for Communities in Schools at Lake Worth High School in Lake Worth, northwest of Fort Worth. She opened the nonprofit program at the school, which serves about 90 students each year to increase their odds of graduating. In the fall, Thi moved with Communities in Schools to Azle High School, not far from Lake Worth.
“The students face everything from drug addiction and homelessness to abuse and pregnancy,” she said. “The students pop by and see me; 9 of 10 of them will wind up graduating with their class in part because of the extra support they receive.”
Lindsey Garner, president and CEO of Communities in Schools of Greater Tarrant County, said, “Thi represents a safe place for their students to go and someone who will work to remove a lot of barriers to their success. Hearing from the staff at her school, they have a great sense of relief to have her on campus doing this kind of work.”
At TCU, Petrovich noted that “obviously as a Community Scholar, Thi is very bright, but by choosing to do this kind of work, which is not easy and nor is it well-paid, it really shows the kind of person she is. Above all else, she wants to help people.”
The sisters maintain that the tradition of service above self is something that TCU and the Community Scholars Program helped nurture in them. Their father agrees.
“When I think of TCU, I have faith,” said Vu Le in words translated by his daughters from Vietnamese to English. “Faith that TCU has educated my daughters and helped them grow into wonderful women.”
Nikki’s perspective is even more succinct: “TCU saved us.”
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Topics: AddRan College of Liberal Arts, College of Education, Feature, Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences
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