Cultural Awareness: Climbing the Academic Ladder
Sunday, October 10, 2010

First generation born American, Jane Le Skaife and her husband married in Vietnam years after meeting in college.Courtesy photo.

By Jane Le Skaife

Nguoi Viet 2
People are usually perplexed to learn that I spent the first five years of my schooling as an English as a Second Language (ESL) student, especially considering I was born here and I can speak English confidently without an accent. Their bewilderment soon turns into understanding when I explain that my parents were refugees from Vietnam, and Vietnamese was the only language spoken in our household.
My family immigrated to the United States after the Vietnam War in 1978. My mom was 8 months pregnant with my brother when my parents decided to escape Vietnam by boat a year earlier. She initially begged my dad to let her stay in Vietnam with her parents and seven siblings, but he convinced her that life beyond the confines of Vietnam would be much more promising for them and their unborn children.
My dad had spent seven years in the South Vietnamese army, and he knew that any struggles endured in a foreign land would be significantly better than the fate facing them in communist Vietnam. With only three days to decide, my mom relented and later spent three days sick on a boat with 25 other people also fleeing the country. She gave birth to my brother just two weeks after arriving at the refugee camp in Malaysia.
My mom was pregnant with me when a church in Portland, Ore., sponsored our family to come to the United States. I was the first in my family to be born on American soil, and consequently, the first to become a U.S. citizen by birth. With two young children and only a fourth-grade education, my parents were forced to work as strawberry pickers in order to survive during the initial period of resettlement.
My family later migrated to San Rafael, Calif., to reunite with fellow Vietnamese refugees living in a “refugee ghetto” known as the Canal area. While my parents succeeded in vocational school there, I spent most of elementary school struggling to learn English. I maintained a C average, neither excelling nor failing despite my efforts to do well. My dad remembers me staying up late at night as a child studying with a small lamp by my bedside.
When we moved further south to Oceanside, I finally blossomed academically after years of hard work. I achieved straight As for the first time in seventh grade. My 4.0 and above GPA continued all the way through the end of high school; I graduated as salutatorian with a 4.3 GPA. My brother graduated the same year as valedictorian with a 4.5 GPA. We had been in the same grade since kindergarten because he had been held back for missing too many days of school due to asthma.
My parents proudly watched as both of us gave our individual speeches in front of thousands at our high school graduation before we were to continue our studies together at the University of California, San Diego. My brother diligently pursued the physical sciences and is now an accomplished dentist along with his wife, who specializes in pediatric dentistry.
I, on the other hand, took a more precarious academic route after struggling in the sciences. Although I did well in the physical sciences throughout high school, sometimes even better than my brother, those classes did not pique my interest to the same extent as the social sciences.
History was clearly my forte, and I later realized sociology was where I would excel academically. I received Provost’s Honors — achieving a 3.5 GPA or higher each quarter — while taking nothing but sociology classes for the last year and a half of my undergraduate studies.
While my brother was in dental school, I pursued my master’s in education at San Jose State University and later another master’s and now a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California, Davis. I have remained blissfully in my “ivory tower” – a place of academic retreat – as I continue to conduct my dissertation research comparing Vietnamese refugees in the United States and France.
Diligence and perseverance have been essential in balancing my academic life with my personal life, especially since my husband and I have had to spend a lot of time apart from one another because of our studies. He was in medical school thousands of miles away for four years. We even had to spend six months not seeing each other right before we got married in 2008.
At that time, I was in France for a half year, learning French on a Rotary Cultural Ambassadorial Scholarship while he was doing medical rotations in Cameroon and Nicaragua. Even now, we are forced to spend months away from each other while I continue my research in Southern California and later in France.
Although the pursuit of a doctorate clearly has had many challenges along the way, the rewards thus far have definitely outweighed those challenges. The opportunity to learn more about the Vietnamese community in the United States and abroad while selfishly accumulating human capital — the stock of competencies and knowledge — has been priceless in my book.
I realize that a doctorate in sociology and an eventual career as a professor will never attain the same level of financial return as a doctor of medicine or dentistry. However, my aspiration to be a lifelong scholar far exceeds any disappointment stemming from the lack of pecuniary gain from years of schooling.
My insatiable thirst for knowledge has sustained me throughout the past 27 years of continuous full-time schooling and has further helped me in successfully progressing from an ESL student to a Ph.D. candidate over the past few decades. I take pride in knowing that my parents’ journey halfway around the world to a foreign country will not have been made in vain.
10 Tips for Academic Success
1) Spend time together 
as a family. 
Spending quality time as a family is important in not only nurturing academic goals, but also giving students the encouragement and guidance to do well in school. My parents spent every weekend with my brother and I growing up, even if we had to interact with adults the entire time.
2) Do weekly chores. 
Chores help students to learn discipline that is transferable from the home to the classroom. My brother and I had our individual weekly chores. For years, I had to thoroughly clean all the bathrooms and mirrors in the house, while my brother did all the laundry and vacuumed.
3) Establish a routine. 
Developing a routine for a student allows for consistency that helps in getting things done. If time is set aside specifically for studying every day, it will most likely be done every day. My brother and I would wake up, go to school, attend practice for a sport, and then go to the library after school. That was our joint routine.
4) Read every day. 
Reading helps build vocabulary essential both inside and outside of school, and additionally broadens the knowledge and perspectives of students. I did not read nearly as much as my friends, who read novels regularly and consequently, received notably high scores on the verbal sections of standardized exams.
5) Take advantage of the library. 
Libraries offer an abundance of information and it is astounding the amount of access we have to books, newspapers, videos, etc. in the United States. Take advantage of those free library resources. My brother and I went to the library every day after school to study with our friends and it became a great study environment for the both of us.
6) Participate in extracurricular activities. 
Extracurricular activities are not only good on transcripts, but also great in achieving a balance between life and school. Activities outside the classroom make the academic experience much more enjoyable inside the classroom. My brother and I participated in various sports, clubs, and volunteer work.
7) Choose friends wisely. Good friends are a good influence. The influence of peers has always been notable considering the amount of time students spend in school together. Hence, friends should be chosen wisely. My brother and I had a group of tight-knit friends who spent most of our time studying together.
8) Stay organized throughout school. 
Staying organized is essential in the student experience, especially during undergraduate studies and beyond. Organization helps students to be efficient with their time. I have become increasingly organized over the years, which has helped me in being prompt with my various deadlines.
9) Be proactive in school. 
Being proactive in school allows for students to make the most of their educational experience and also to take advantage of all the available resources. My brother and I took the initiative to pursue different activities on our own and also to apply for scholarships that other students were unaware of.
10) Pursue own passion rather than parents’ passion. 
Allowing students the freedom to choose their own academic passion is the key to success because there is a genuine and unrivaled motivation to do well in school based purely on interest. My brother and I chose different career trajectories and our individual passions have fueled our academic success throughout the years.

This story is reprinted courtesy of Nguoi Viet Daily News, the largest Vietnamese-language newspaper in the United States, at Online content includes a weekly English section, which runs on Thursday.

This article was printed in the October 10, 2010 - October 23, 2010 edition.

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