Here’s a challenge: Travel to the other side of the world, to a country where you’ve never been before and don’t speak a word of the language, and see how far you get. That would be a daunting task even for an adult, but Jenny Pham had to do it at age six.
“It was pretty difficult,” admits Pham, a native of Vietnam, “but that must have given me the motivation to learn English faster. And that was one of the first times in my life where I realized that hard work does pay off. I came here and started school in December of 2004 — that would be the winter of first grade — and by the winter of second grade I found out that I had won a writing competition in English.”
Apparently the one English word Pham still hasn’t mastered is “can’t.” At every turn she’s defied challenges and expectations to achieve bigger and bigger things, and today she finds herself in downtown Atlanta as an Honors College student and a Presidential Scholar — a recipient of the most prestigious scholarship offered at Georgia State.
A Passion for Learning
When Pham was born in Quy Nhon, Vietnam, her father was already laying the groundwork for her and her mother to come to America. He had first ventured across the Pacific shortly after the Vietnam War, and now his entire side of the family is in the United States.
“I grew up eating the food, being surrounded by the culture,” Pham says. “When I came to the United States, I guess I kind of lost touch with the Vietnamese side a little bit. Now I only know how to read Vietnamese and speak it — I don’t know how to write it.”
In addition to learning English in record time, Pham picked up a fascination with science as she progressed through school, first in Riverdale, Georgia, and later in Clayton. “Biology was just one of the subjects that I really liked because it’s very relatable,” she says. “You’re learning about life, and you see life everywhere around you. It’s really cool to see how we work, how everything works together, and makes us humans tick — and how are we living and talking and thinking when essentially we’re all just atoms put together?”
Thanks to her cousin, Vivian Vu — currently a junior at Georgia State — Pham was inspired to continue those explorations in downtown Atlanta. She didn’t even learn about the Presidential Scholarship until she was well into her college search, but after reading about it, “I thought, ‘Hey, this is pretty good, might as well give it a shot.’”
Pham interviewed for the scholarship on Friday, and less than 72 hours later she got the call from Honors College Dean Larry Berman offering her a full ride to Georgia State. “Oh my gosh, I thought I was dreaming,” she remembers. “I really couldn’t believe it, because I wasn’t expecting a call so soon. I was just shocked. Super shocked.”
‘I’m Anything But a Chicken’
After making the move from Vietnam to the United States as a six-year-old, moving from the suburbs to the heart of downtown Atlanta should be a piece of cake, especially with a relative on campus. “It is so awesome to have people who are already one step ahead of me just kind of looking out for me and giving me little tips here and there. They tell me about their favorite places around downtown and what clubs are worth joining, it’s really great.
“I live 30 minutes away from Atlanta, but every single time I go there it’s something new to see. I’m really excited about exploring all the little hole-in-the-wall restaurants and whatever’s going on downtown. I’m so glad that I’m able to live in University Commons, and my floor is pretty high up too, so I get to see the Atlanta skyline at night. I’m definitely a city girl.”
Pham fully intends to continue trying new things and taking on new challenges after she earns her degree from Georgia State. From there, she says, she’d like to go to medical school, join Doctors Without Borders for a few years, and eventually become a medical officer for the United Nations.
“I really would like to go back to Vietnam for maybe a year or two, but mainly to the countryside,” she says. “Because in the cities, Vietnam is so developed now, and progressing faster than I could’ve ever imagined. I would like to visit Cambodia and Laos, in the southeast part of Asia, where the effects of the Vietnam War and everything that happened are still being felt — and, of course, the middle east, because that’s where a lot of crises are happening right now.”
Before she heads out on those adventures, though, there’s a challenge at Georgia State’s rec center she’d like to tackle first.
“If you ever saw me in real life, you would think I was about to lie to you — I’m a little Asian girl, five-foot-two — but I really like to do rock climbing,” she says. “I went to camp one summer they expected everyone to get onto this 100-something-foot rock-climbing wall. And I just said, ‘No, I can’t do this, I’m not gonna do this’ — but, you know, peer pressure and everything. They started calling me a chicken, and I said, ‘I’m not a chicken, I’m anything but a chicken.’ They had a race up the wall, and I won.
“I really got into rock climbing after I made it up the wall. It’s actually very strategic, too — it’s not just muscle. You have to plan out how you’re going to attack the wall, where you’re going to put your foot with each step. I like that. And I love that feeling of finishing the wall — hitting that buzzer and hearing the ring that says, hey, you made it.”