Mentor Tri Pham and high school senior Moo Ku Taw meeting in the Lincoln High School library to take final steps in preparing for college. / Photo by Lindsay Esparrago

Mentor Tri Pham and high school senior Moo Ku Taw meeting in the Lincoln High School library to take final steps in preparing for college. / Photo by Lindsay Esparrago

By Lindsay Esparrago

During her four years at Lincoln High School, Moo Ku Taw went from feeling like an outsider — incapable of fitting in — to a confident, soon-to-be graduate.

“During my first few weeks in school, I felt like an alien from another planet,” Taw said. “Not being able to speak English, I felt isolated and invisible.”

For the 18-year-old, the transition from Thailand to America in 2008 was like walking in a storm with a strong wind. She’d get knocked over, just to get back up again.

And again and again and again.

But she didn’t overcome any sense of failure alone; she had a small group of students and a mentor who stood alongside her.  She’s now one step closer to pursuing her dream of being a nurse in the refugee camp where she grew up.

Taw attributes the resilience she’s gained in the past year to Life After High School, a joint program of Lincoln High School and the Lincoln Asian Community and Cultural Center.  Students and mentors gather at Lincoln High School on Mondays and Fridays from 3:15-5:00 every week. Even though it’s only two days a week, and the hours aren’t overwhelmingly long, the influence is strong.

The program exists to guide students in all aspects of preparing for college — including the application process, writing and proofreading essays, assisting with homework and accompanying students on college visits.

Preparing for college was just another hoop to jump through. Before the program and before America, Taw had already learned to endure many hardships. Getting knocked down is a part of her life — but she’s almost guaranteed to get back up and try again.

Hard life to hard work 

The feeling of being knocked over reminds her of the forceful winds she experienced in Thailand’s Umpiem refugee camp, where she spent 12 years of her life. Conditions of her childhood home were poor. The school she attended for four years in Thailand wasn’t much better. A day ruined by weather was constantly expected. The camp was large — about the size of 10 football fields.

“Life was never easy growing up in a refugee camp,” Taw said. “My school walls were woven bamboo and the roof was made of hay. When it was hot or cold, we felt it in our bones. During the raining season, the roof leaked and it was difficult to stay focused on school.”

Although Taw’s memories of the camp remain fresh in her mind, focusing on school is no longer a problem since coming to America. Her new home and her past experiences only forced her to concentrate more on success.

“I survived the difficult conditions in the refugee camp and aided my brother during an asthma attack while there,” she said. “I believed I could resolve this weakness. Besides attending school, I spent around five hours each week at my church to receive homework help and practice my English skills. I spent hours at home reading and writing in English.”

Taw said she was terrified of making mistakes, but school was still much easier here in America than it was in Thailand because of many factors. Some of those factors were internal: the quality of education was lacking; the same concepts were covered no matter the grade; the classrooms were overcrowded; and punishments from not studying or doing homework were common. A punishment could mean being hit by the teacher and being forced to run around the school as the other classmates watched. Students would blush with embarrassment.

Loss ignites passion

Also making schooling difficult for Taw was the fact that her grandfather was suffering from cancer in the Thailand camp.   With only a few professionals in the large camp, health care was lacking. It wasn’t enough to keep her grandfather alive.

At the time, Taw didn’t realize the death of a loved one would become inspiration for her future. The loss, plus the other terrible health issues among the people of the camp, moved her to choose her major.

“My experience helps me narrow down the path for my career,” Taw said. “Because of what I witnessed back in the refugee camp I know that I want to do nursing.”

The high school senior plans to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the fall in hopes of fulfilling her dreams of helping others.

Taw will be the first in family of four to go to college — the first to have the opportunity to make a better life on her own.

“I feel like there are a lot of expectations for me,” she said. “My parents do not know how to guide me to and through college so it is very hard for them to prepare me. My parents never had a chance to attend college. Since we came to the U.S., they have sacrificed and worked hard at a meatpacking plant so I would be able to attend school.”

Her mission of going into pre-nursing began with the encouragement of her parents and was reinforced by the lessons she learns through Life After High School.

Tri Pham walking Moo Ku Taw through the process of buying college textbooks and applying for grants. / Photo by Lindsay Esparrago

Tri Pham walking Moo Ku Taw through the process of buying college textbooks and applying for grants. / Photo by Lindsay Esparrago

Although people can volunteer for the program, Tri Pham is the current mentor and has been since September of 2015. Being the only one, with more than 10 students, his dedication does not waver.

But his self-esteem once did. Before becoming a mentor, he was a 13-year-old immigrant from Vietnam.

“I was very quiet when I first arrived because I did not know the language and was terrified to speak with others because I was fearful of making mistakes and embarrassing myself,” he said. “I see that in some of my students.”

He also sees the results of weak educational backgrounds and the problems students face because of systematic barriers within schools.

“They’re ushered along like all other students,” Pham said. “It puts stress on them.”

Pham initially joined the Asian Center staff as a marketing intern, in which he helped coordinate some of their major events, and then moved on to the AmeriCorps position. But as a 23-year-old graduate from Nebraska Wesleyan University, Pham knows all about hard work. So much, that he was recognized as Interdisciplinary Student of the Year by his professors and academic adviser in the Business Administration Department.

His goal is to instill the same discipline he learned in each student.

“Being someone who has walked the road, I feel the need to reach back and help those who could use my experience of having gone through college,” Pham said.

But the program goes beyond college preparation. The purpose is to help students plan their life after high school — college or not.

“He cares about what we will do in the future,” Taw said. “He makes time for us. Whenever we need help, he is always there.”

At the end of the day, Pham is a part of a support system — and the students’ number one fan.

‘Amazing stories’

“I’m humbled and grounded when helping these students,” Pham said. “They are amazing individuals, and one has to look past their English deficiency to see that.”

Pham’s feeling of gratefulness come from his mentee’s “amazing stories,” such as crossing minefields to gather gun parts to sell and support family to escaping war in Iraq. Taw has one of those stories.

Pham guided Taw as she applied for the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation Scholarship, helped her sort through financial aid packets and wrote letters of recommendation.

The mentorship has blossomed into a friendship.

After hopefully completing her schooling as a pre-nursing major at UNL, Taw wants to give back what she’s been given — which is the same support system.

It comes full circle for Taw — she wants to make the Umpiem refugee camp her first stop after receiving her nursing degree. Negative experiences don’t hold her back;  they serve as a reason to move forward.

“I would like to go back to Thailand refugee camps and help treat patients there and educate them about how important health is,” she said. “I planned to go back some day if my refugee camp is still there. I want to revisit the place I grew up where I have so many child memories.”

Because of the constant love from her parents and the motivation from Life After School, Taw aspired to make new, meaningful memories helping others in Thailand — her roots, her place of enlightenment and her home away from home.