First-generation student, Jenny Hoang, smiling and sitting on Tercero lawn.
While I was doing my work, crying from all the stress, or studying for midterms and finals, I spent most of my time looking outside at the grass from the common area. It truly gave me a tranquil state of mind. Photo: Daniel Oberbauer

Living my Family’s Dreams - Jenny Hoang

Jenny Hoang 

Psychology '21

My ancestors originated from China, but during the Japanese invasion, my family moved to Vietnam hoping to live a better life. To avoid the Vietnam war, they sought refuge in Hong Kong before finally taking a boat to San Francisco, where my family settled. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, my family split. Half of them stayed in SF, and others migrated to Oakland, where I grew up.

As a child, I never realized how fortunate I was. While my parents went to work, my grandmother took care of me and my younger brother. She walked us to school and picked us up until we were old enough to do so on our own. We were always fed, kept warm, and were clean. I had everything I needed in life because my parents worked so extremely hard for our family.

Taking Care of My Family and Losing my Mom

One day in the freshmen year of high school, I came home and saw my mom lying on the couch. I was confused because at the time she lived in Sacramento for work, and she didn’t come home very often. I found out she had cancer and stopped working to stay home with us, knowing she may not have a lot of time left. This was one of the most difficult times in life. I spent 6 months taking care of my mom, keeping her company, and holding on hope that one day she would be well enough to go places other than the hospital. For 6 months, I watched her go through many changes. She became weak from chemotherapy, lost her hair, could not cook or walk, and often had to throw up. While this was happening, my brother’s temperament became very difficult, adding to the challenge.  

My mother’s absence left a huge hole in our family. While my father struggled to pay the rent and the bills, my brother and I became distant from each other and from my dad. However, a year later after my dad remarried, I knew my brother needed me more than ever. I broke out of my emotional distress to be a better sister. I tried to take care of him the best I could by making sure he was doing well in school, and had food to eat every night. I started working that summer to ensure that happened.

Being the First in my Family

My family and relatives always emphasized how important it was for me to go to college. Not going to college was not an option, because my relatives never had the chance to go to college; some even considered themselves “lucky” if they had gone to high school even for a little while. They always told me, “work hard in school, get a degree so you can earn a good job that pays well.” Some of my older cousins did not get the chance to go to college, as they had little motivation, and they redirected their dreams onto me. They would always say if they could go back in time and have a chance to change something in their lives, it would be to focus on school more. Although they never pressured me and were never strict on me to “get all A’s” in school, I pressured myself in doing my very best because I wanted to make them proud. Being the first in my family to go to a university filled holes in my family, as they felt that I could finally help them financially.

I sometimes feel that because I am in college and working hard, I have reassured them that their past sufferings and journey to America is worth something more.

Students Rising Above and Finding UC Davis

When applying for colleges, I received little help from my family, as they knew nothing about the process. In my junior year of high school, I applied for a scholarship program called Students Rising Above (SRA). 

The moment I received the phone call about my acceptance was the day my academic life changed.

I thought this program was only about the finances- but I was way wrong. Aside from the financial support they gave me, I received so much more. Throughout my senior year of high school, I received support on applying for UC’s, CSU’s, and private schools. I attended workshops where we worked on the insight questions together, and I still attend workshops now that help with my career development (creating LinkedIn profiles, resumes, etc). This was everything for me to being a first-generation college student!

I had no “dream school.” I only wanted to go to a college that was close to home. Since Berkeley was a little too close to home, I chose UC Davis and with the help of SRA, UC Davis was perfect financially. I absolutely fell in love with this campus the moment I laid eyes on it at orientation.

Going to College

I was most afraid of being away from my family in general. All my life, I took advantage of having a roof over my head, food on the table, and clothes on my back. I struggled with eating healthy in my first year of college because all of a sudden I had this different kind of freedom. At the beginning of my second year, I had to teach myself to cook because I never asked my family to teach me; I also never watched what they did when they cooked dinner. I definitely took advantage of that. But now, I Facetime with my family often and ask them questions about how to cook certain foods. 

Being away from my brother took a toll on our relationship because he was starting high school while I was starting college. He will soon apply to colleges, and I know he needs my help. It is hard for him to reach out to me as we are miles apart. It is definitely different when I’m home, so I go home quite often to check up on him.

Another fear I had when coming to college was meeting new people. I went to a charter school in middle and high school, where it was easy to meet new people because the population was much smaller than the average public school. I had the same group of friends in middle school and the same group of friends throughout high school, so leaving home and going our separate ways really scared me during my first year of college. I often cried at night, feeling alone because UC Davis was so big, it was so hard for me to meet new people. However, my dorm-mates were all so kind. Some saw me cry and would ask what was wrong, and that is when I realized it wasn’t too different than in high school. All friendships start somewhere and could be as little as a greeting.

Student Health and Counseling Services was a Great HelpJenny Hoang

UC Davis’ Student Health and Counseling Services helped tremendously during my first year. Near the death anniversary of my mother, I felt so extremely distant from everyone and especially from myself. I had trouble sleeping every single night, and felt more alone than ever. However, the health center was so supportive and kind. They really listen to what I was saying, and really cared for my mental health. There are so many more resources on campus for everyone! A particular resource may not be right for everyone, but because of the abundant amount of resources on campus, there will be one that is just right for you! Reaching out and doing your own research to find what is best for you is a great way to help manage your mental health and help build mental immunity against anxiety and depression. 

My Background 

Because my mother passed away at an early age of me and my brothers’ lives, I became extremely independent and also took on the mother figure role for my brother. I believe that because of this, I learned to be more responsible of many things in life. I was responsible of my own grades, as well as my brothers’ grades for school. I was responsible for setting doctor, dentist, and medical appointments for both of us. I learned to take care of complications on my own and find solutions to those complications. I stayed on top of things for myself because I knew that no one else would keep me on check, and I was responsible for myself. This skill really helped me in high school and also in college because I learned to manage my time well to get assignments done and plan time and days to study for my exams. 

Mentorship in College

I have not been mentored by anyone on campus, however, I do have a teacher mentor off campus at an elementary school in an internship I am doing. I have learned a lot from her: the way that she handles situations with her students, the way that she talks to her students, and how patient she is. In the future, I do hope to be an elementary school teacher as well, so my mentor answers any questions that I have. She definitely has made an impact on me because there are so many things that she does that I have never seen any other teacher do before, but at the same time there are things that are similar to how I was taught growing up. The concepts are the same, however, the way she applies the teaching is so uniquely different. I hope to be just as great of a teacher in the future as she is now.

Best Thing of My College Experience 

Definitely, the internship that I am doing, which was provided by UC Davis. I absolutely love working at an elementary school because I know that it is something I want to do in the future. I get to learn so much that I hopefully can one day incorporate into my classroom in the future.

Internships are a great opportunity to explore your career options.

You find out what you love to do and what you don’t like to do through internships. It was a great way to also meet new people, build relationships, and NETWORK!

Another great part of my college experience so far is just meeting new people in general- on campus, in classes, etc. Making new friends made me realize that this school may seem so big, but it actually is small. You make one friend, who apparently knows another of your friends, and the circle just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Going into a new class, there is a chance that you may know someone there; and from there, you make new relationships. They are also a great support system - people who definitely can empathize with the stress you feel when midterms and finals are coming up. The friends you make in college definitely can help you through hard times.

Advice to New Students

A piece of advice I wished I knew was to plan my classes very early on. I remember during the spring quarter of my first year, I struggled and stressed over what classes to take. I almost missed my pass time because I was not on top of it. Use OASIS and try to plan out your classes early on that matches your major. And if you are undeclared and have no idea what to major in, go to an advisor/counselor! They are on campus for a reason, they will help you through all your struggles. Take their advice when they tell you which classes to avoid and which classes to take. Also: take responsibility for yourself & do not fall behind! It is so easy to procrastinate, easy to miss certain due dates if you do not stay on top of it. Because of the amount of freedom you have in college, it is easy to forget what assignments are due for which class.

Future Goals 

My immediate goal as of right now: GRADUATE, of course! Afterward, I hope to continue to pursue my dream of becoming a teacher. I have a passion for advocating for the youth and their future. I hope to one day make a difference by nurturing my future students especially those coming from low-income neighborhoods. I also hope to close the education gap by building strategic plans to strengthen learning for the youth.

It is hard to keep this dream, however, because my entire family expects me to go into the medical field. My dad, especially, wants me to be a nurse in the future, therefore, even telling him that my major is psychology, he doubts me and my capabilities of succeeding in the future. Luckily, I still have my older cousins who support me in whatever I do, and that is why I ignore what my aunts, uncles, and my own dad say. And it is also the reason why I do what I do. I truly believe that it is important to do something you absolutely love in life, as long as your intentions are pure.

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