Alumni Reflections: Thuan Ngoc Phung
Like many immigrant, first-generation, and low-income students, I felt the pressure to succeed. My parents gave up their comfortable life in District 5, the Chinese-influenced region of Vietnam, for minimum wage, laborious jobs in America. For them and myself, I had to get into college.
As a confident perfectionist, I knew that I was the perfect, well-rounded student that colleges were looking for. In high school, I had a well-paying tutoring gig, played classical flute, danced ballet, was on track to become valedictorian, and was president of multiple clubs. There was only thing left to tackle — the SATs. I had been told numerous times before that scoring 2000+ points (out of 2400 possible) was what colleges expected of “smart students.”
I was overly confident in my natural abilities and took the SAT for the first time without studying beforehand. Then, the scores came out and I was devastated. 1730. What was wrong with me? Was I not as “smart” as I thought I was? No. It’s fine, I reassured myself. I had one more retake at the beginning of my senior year; I just had to be perfect by then. I spent the remainder of my junior year of high school frantically studying for the SATs. I was doing everything that I could by taking multiple practice exams and spending my free time memorizing SAT vocabulary words. Strangely, my score was not improving as quickly as I needed it to. If I could not hit 2000 before senior year, I thought, I would not get accepted into my then dream college, Columbia University. This would in turn lead to a miserable college experience. Then, everything would go downhill from there. To summarize, I was a nervous wreck by the first week of CollegeSpring.
My CollegeSpring mentor sensed my anxiety and talked me out of fearing the SATs. She repeatedly said that though SAT scores are important, it should not be the only thing that is. She was genuinely interested in my future, continuously asking me what I wanted to major in and what schools I liked. That’s when it hit me. I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I wanted to attend Columbia but had no tangible reason as to why, other than the fact that the school was in New York. I had been so focused on getting in that I had no idea what I was going to do once I was in college. My mentor made me consider student life, rigor of academia, campus culture, and many other aspects of a college. I realized that college is a stepping stone for a successful career and also a chance for me to explore my interests and the world around me. For the first time, I was excited to go to college.
“My mentor made me consider student life, rigor of academia, campus culture, and many other aspects of a college. I realized that college is a stepping stone for a successful career and also a chance for me to explore my interests and the world around me. For the first time, I was excited to go to college.”
Fast forward to the present. Yes, I was accepted into Columbia. I instead chose to attend UC Berkeley on a full-ride scholarship. Funny thing is, I never hit the 2000 mark but I did score darn close. Even funnier, I did not choose to submit my second SAT score to Berkeley. Despite 1730, my application was still accepted and I was still offered numerous scholarships.
My CollegeSpring mentor helped me realize that I was more than my SAT score. I cannot thank her enough for instilling in me the confidence that I lost. Here is the advice that I would like to pass on from her: you will thrive.
Thuan grew up in San Jose and attended William C. Overfelt High School. She is currently a sophomore at UC Berkeley studying Dance and Cognitive Science.