The Gift and Responsibility of Scholarship

(I realized that my “About” section is pretty nondescript. I really hate short bios because they sound like self-congratulatory pitches, but I’ll include personal posts in addition to my posts about my travels and work so you can get to know why I do what I do. Right now I am busy with an upcoming event with our Vietnamese Language Class students, a grant proposal, and work plans, but I’ll update y’all another time.)

By Linh Chuong, APIASF/GMS Scholar
Originally posted on APIASF re/present

When I won the Gates Millennium Scholarship, I thought they had the wrong person. Wrong name. Address. Something. I was elated, excited, ecstatic, but I also felt guilty and lonely. These mixed emotions still well up after four years.

I grew up Chinese urban poor. Grew up playing Chinese jump rope with elastic bands from our mothers’ garment factory excess materials. Grew up raised by my sisters because my parents were always working. Grew up calculating costs in the hours my father worked for it so that everything seemed unaffordable. All around me were reminders of labor and poverty, so my dreams of graduate school seemed impossible. Even so, I loved learning and reading so much that I made a pact with my father: he would not die until I held my doctorate degree in my hands. I decided then, in middle school, that I would pay for college myself. I would not burden them.

Growing up poor also means I grew up feeling inadequate, like a constant disappointment to society. I struggled against everything naysayers said young poor women of color were: sexually available, dependent, unmotivated, welfare queens. I was loud and abrasive, dressed conservatively, told guys that I was asexual, worked hard, and kept myself busy with a flurry of student activities. I seemed stubborn and strong, but internally I harbored a longstanding fear that no matter what I did one day my mask would slip and they would discover me for the fraud I was. I was afraid I would go to college to drop out.

I was afraid, but not as much as I was determined. When I chose Hendrix College, 1600 miles away from home, I had a friend going with me. We were so excited. However, over the summer, he dropped his plans, attending a local community college to stay home and support his family. He’s not alone. Going to an inner-city high school meant that I had to see students who were just as smart or smarter than me make “choices” that offered them lesser lives so they could take care of their younger siblings, work, or save money. If I wasn’t lucky, if my parents or sisters needed me, if any one of a million things went wrong, I would have done the same.

So when people tell me I deserve it, it’s hard to accept because I feel like I’m slapping my community in the face: “I deserve it but you didn’t.” When I go home for college breaks, my sister tells me my parents say I’ve changed. “You think you know everything.” I can’t form a response. I have become more and more privileged as I’ve drifted farther and farther from home. It is an uncomfortable reality that feels like I’ve been permanently exiled to live in the space between worlds. I wish that I could make them understand that my success as an individual is not a loss to theirs. I will never leave my community, or trade them in for a newer model.

My scholarship, my education literally opened up the world to me, but the red lines around my community are still closing in on them: gentrification, environmental racism, income inequality, segregation. So for me, my scholarship is many things: a gift, hope, opportunity, pain, and promise—a promise to use my abilities to make others understand and respect my communities’ worth and dignity.

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