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First-generation college student describes her journey to Tufts University

2013 September 5
by HISD Communications

In this week’s I am HISD, which features district students, graduates, employees, and other team members, Chávez High School graduate (Class of 2012) Phuong Ta talks about how the district’s EMERGE program helped her land a full-ride scholarship to a Tier One school, mistakes she made as a college freshman, and her family’s surprising reaction to the news of her acceptance to Tufts University.

You came to Chávez High School from Vietnam at the age of 17. Did you speak any English when you arrived?

Phuong Ta

Yeah, I did. English was a class you had to take in Vietnam. But one difficulty was my accent. Apparently, it was really heavy, so that was a shock to me, not having anyone understand what I was saying.

You just finished your first year at Tufts. What has that experience been like?

It changed me a lot—everything, really. Before I went to college, one of my teachers told me I wouldn’t be the same person in a year, but I couldn’t imagine how different I would be. It really changed my perspective.

You’ve referred to both the University of Texas and Tufts as your “dream schools.” What made you choose the one over the other?

I actually didn’t know about Tufts until my senior year at Chávez. But their admissions officer came to campus, and I took a brochure and looked it up online. Then I applied, and I made a campus visit in October. It was the only private, out-of-state school I visited. I also visited Rice, UH, and UT, but the financial aid package made a huge difference.

Before, my dream school was UT-Austin, but it just seemed so far away. I had no idea what kind of SAT score I would have to get to go to a private college.

How did HISD’s EMERGE program factor into your success? Do you think you ever would have gone to a Tier One school like Tufts without it?

The EMERGE program was extremely crucial in making me who I am. Before, I didn’t really know anything about college, or why I should take the ACT or SAT. I didn’t even know what the SAT and ACT were. No, I would definitely never have had a chance. I thought, “If I go to UT-Austin, that’s good enough for me.”

Are your parents pretty excited about you being a first-generation college student at such a prestigious institution?

My parents were actually strongly against my going to college so far away. My whole family was so upset. It took them months to get used to the fact that I was leaving home. But a friend of the family who lives in Boston talked to them and said it was a good thing to be accepted to such a good school and to get such a great financial aid package. Now, they’re some of my biggest supporters.

On a website dedicated to first-generation college students, you talked about making some mistakes as a freshman, despite advance preparations. What were some of those mistakes, and how did you fix them?

Mostly, my concerns were about how to find a group of friends and figure out where I belonged on campus. Just trying to find activities that I would enjoy all four years, and balancing academic and social life. I spent more time exploring, but then I struggled. In my intro to sociology class, I was one of the only minorities, and I didn’t feel comfortable talking to the professor or asking questions. I didn’t go to office hours when I should have, and got behind in that class, but after the winter break, I worked with the tutor more (which is free there), and started to take advantage of all the help that’s available.

In another article I read, you mentioned being undeclared as far as majors go. Any ideas yet about what you want to study, or have you not taken enough electives to decide?

I’m still exploring, but right now I’m interested in American studies, with a concentration in U.S. education. I’m also thinking about a minor in communication/media studies.

If you know a graduate, student, employee, or other member of Team HISD who should be featured here, please email us at

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