LAWRENCE — While the debate over immigrants and refugees roils the nation, Lawrence put its heritage as an anchorage for the tempest-tossed on stage earlier this month when the daughter of Vietnamese refugees walked to the microphone and addressed her 754 classmates as their valedictorian.
“In the coming years, we will be told from time to time that we don't understand, that we are just Lawrence kids who haven't experienced the world,” valedictorian Michelle Nguyen told her classmates in an address that lasted only a minute or two. “(But) you are in control of your destinies and prosperity.”
That was a lesson Nguyen often learned the hard way as she forged her way to the top of her class, beginning when she enrolled as a kindergartner at the Frost school 15 years ago speaking only Vietnamese, then grew up as an Asian in an overwhelmingly Latino city deeply infused with the cultures of the Caribbean.
Seizing on the advice she would give her classmates, Nguyen took control of her destiny early on: she earned a grade point average of 4.8, weighted for the difficulty of all the Advanced Placement and college courses she took at Lawrence High. She joined the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps and last year was executive officer of her battalion. She served meals at the Cor Unum shelter and at the senior center, planted flags on veterans' graves at Bellevue Cemetery and got her hands dirty at the Spicket River clean-up. She learned to speak English without a trace of an accent and speaks it in a whisper of a voice that her teachers say speaks to her humility.
In September, Nguyen will enroll at Tufts University, where she'll take the courses needed for a career as a developmental psychologist researching how the brain evolves in children.
On Wednesday, Nguyen received a $1,500 scholarship from the union representing the teachers who taught her. In all, the Lawrence Teachers Union gave scholarships to seven college-bound students – four of them the children of Lawrence teachers — during a short ceremony at the Relief's In union hall on Market Street.
“Lawrence is a real good city,” union president Frank McLaughlin told the students and their parents, teachers and friends before handing out the checks, reminding them of the traditions they grew up with. “It's helped a lot of people for a long time. It's a city of hope, of opportunity, of immigrants.”
Nguyen's immigrant father and mother, Dung Nguyen Thuy-Hong Pham, attended.
Dung Nguyen's own education ended in April 1975, when South Vietnam fell to the Communist forces of the north, who closed the military high school he attended in Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — a few months before he was to graduate. He supported himself through the next decade weaving baskets and selling them on the street.
He fled Vietnam with his girlfriend in June 1989 aboard a small boat with 72 others for a three-day passage across the South China Sea to Pulau Galang, an island refugee camp in Indonesia that processed a quarter million Indochinese refugees between 1979 and 1996. The couple paid for their passage with four ounces of gold.
Their first daughter, Ngoc, was born in the camp. They returned to Vietnam after five years with the hope that their application to immigrate to the United States would be approved more quickly if they applied from the Communist nation. Dung Nguyen's sister had married an American soldier in Vietnam in 1972 and moved with him to Tampa, giving the Nguyen family the roots here that they needed to immigrate. They arrived in Tampa in 1997 and moved to Lawrence a year later.
Both got jobs on an assembly line at Microsemi, which manufactures semiconductors at a plant on Lake Street.
Michelle was born in 2000.
The family spoke only Vietnamese at home. When Michelle enrolled at the Frost School, administrators urged her parents to switch to the Weatherbee School, which had a Vietnamese translator on staff. Her parents insisted she remain at the Frost School with the hope she would learn English more quickly without the crutch of a translator.
“They constantly supported me,” Michelle said. “They checked up on my report cards. They went to parents night. They'd ask how my school day was. They always asked around the workplace for advice. Everything I've done, the (extra-curricular and volunteer) programs I signed up for, they've always supported me. They tried to give it their best, even though they didn't have much.”
Sondra Longo taught Michelle's SAT preparation class last year, when she said Michelle showed her a draft of a paper she was writing for an Advanced Placement English course.
“She wrote about identity,” Longo said. The paper described the separation she often felt growing up Asian in a heavily Latino city, when her own heritage provided only a small sanctuary because Vietnamese are often considered just a small minority in an Asian culture dominated by the behemoths of China, Japan and Korea.
“Being typical of Michelle, when given an opportunity to do a 10-page research paper, she chose Asian American stereotypes,” Longo said. “And in doing so, learned a lot about herself, mostly that she didn't need to work to fit someone else's mold.”
The Lawrence Teachers Union on Wednesday awarded scholarships to college-bound high-school seniors, including four who are the children of union members and attended school outside Lawrence. They are:
* Ollie Longo, a Haverhill High School graduate who will be attending Buffalo (NY) State University to study political science;
* Michelle Nguyen, a Lawrence High School graduate who will be attending Tufts University to study psychology;
* Leah Thorburne, a Dracut High School graduate who will be attending Fitchburg State University to study nursing;
* Sarah Sullivan, a Central Catholic High School graduate who will be attending UMass Lowell to study nursing;
* Kenya Espinosa, a Lawrence High School graduate who will be attending Salem State University to study psychology;
* Jack Sullivan, a Lawrence High School graduate who will be attending Merrimack College to study business;
* Elizabeth George, a Haverhill High School graduate who will be attending Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts to study education and political science.