LIGHT YOUR OWN FIRE: How I Went From Being a 1st Generation At-Risk High School Student to UCLA Graduate/Published Co-Author/Psych Masters Student
I’m a 24-year-old first generation Cambodian with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, multiple
co-authored publications, breast cancer research experience, and now I’m currently
in pursuit of a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology while learning to code
in my free time in hopes that moving forward, I will be able to combine
technology with my formal education regarding humans and the human mind—possibly
working in the field of Artificial Intelligence. I live near Venice/Santa Monica, drive a stick shift Infiniti, I’m an occasional DJ and amateur baton twirler, I speak multiple languages, I can do handstands and the splits–there’s really nothing that’s outside of my realm of possibilities.
I share my current situation not to brag, but to give you insight on how far I have come…because how I got to this point started as a matter of survival.
Born to two Cambodian immigrants who escaped the Khmer Rouge
in their teen years, my life starting out was really challenging.
My parents barely managed to graduate high school…so the
best job my mom could get back then was working at Rite Aid. Meanwhile, my
father stayed home taking care of me and my older brother. We were really poor,
but I was happy—I didn’t know any other way of life.
I spent a lot of time with my father reading books and going
to the library. He stressed reading and education to me really early on and in
hindsight, I see that it’s because he wanted for me, what he could never have—a
Up until about 7 years old, we lived in not so great
neighborhoods around Long Beach, CA before finally moving to the Central
Valley. My father’s father passed away so we moved up north to Fresno to be
with my 70 year old grandmother. This is when everything started going
I remember nights when my mother wouldn’t come home, often
saying she was staying with my aunt. As a child, I remember being worried, but
always unsure why this was happening. It all started to come together for me
one morning when my father was driving us to our new school. My mom hadn’t come
home the night before which didn’t bother me too much. I was used to her being
absent—and when she was around, she wasn’t the nicest person anyways. At a
stoplight, in the car next to us, it was my mother in the passenger seat…and an
unfamiliar man driving her car.
This is the point that flipped my whole life upside down.
I couldn’t go to school that morning because I didn’t want
anyone to see my crying. My dad forced my mom to get in the car and on the way
home, he was swerving in anger in attempt to try and kill all of us.
The next morning, I woke up to loud noises in my parent’s
room next door. My dad was on a rampage throwing and breaking everything in the
room…he even ripped the nailed down lamp off the wall. Then I heard my mother
scream, “I don’t want the kids, you can put them in foster care.” I laid there silently,
both scared and sad at the time…tears rolling off my face onto my pillow.
This was the breaking point for my parents. My dad was taken
to jail and later released and my mom went to stay…wherever it is she would
Fast forward a year later, my dad won custody of me and my
brother and my mother was pregnant with the man in the car’s son. I didn’t see my
mom much after that. She never used her visitation rights. But I was happy with
my brother, father and grandmother…until my father met my stepmother.
Long story short, he ended up moving away to another town
with her when I was in 5th or 6th grade leaving me with
my grandmother who didn’t even speak English. On the upside, it made me fluent
in Khmer which I am grateful for. But on the downside, I felt abandoned and the
world suddenly got really dark. My grandmother favored my brother, not an
unusual circumstance in the Cambodian culture, but he would hit me or do other
cruel things like read my journal to the boy I liked in school and get away
with it. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to commit suicide under these
The sad part about all of this was that I was a stellar student.
I was in the junior doctor’s academy, I was first chair flute in band, I always
got straight A’s…but once my dad left, I stopped caring. I began to question
why no one would stick around.
Junior year of high school, I completely gave up. I was in my
third year of French, AP Bio and AP US History because I was testing at a high
level, but I just stopped going to school. Instead, I was getting drunk
wherever I could, with whoever I could every night and sleeping in until the
afternoon. I learned quickly that no one was going to do anything about it. The
school would call my grandma but she couldn’t understand English…not that I
even cared what my grandma would have to say to me. I ended up getting put on
home studies for kids who were at risk not to graduate high school which was
really funny to me because I knew I wasn’t a true risk. Even on home studies, I
couldn’t make it to the once a week sessions with my teacher who would assign
homework that was way too easy for me. I continued to party and drink instead.
But one morning, it was like a switch went off in my head
that said, “You’re too smart to live like this forever. It’s time to do
something.” I went to my home studies teacher and told him I wanted to take the
California High School Proficiency Exam so that I could leave high school and
start college. He laughed, shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s hard, not a
lot a students pass.” When I left, I remember thinking to myself, “Just watch.”
A month later, I managed to behave and not get drunk the
night before the test. I was 16 years old at this point. There were three
sections to the test: math, verbal and written. All of which were too easy for
me. My background growing up with a love for books made me an exceptional
writer and test taker. I left the test feeling pretty dandy and carried on
normally for next month or so—but I stopped going to school altogether because
I was certain I didn’t need to. The evening before the results came out, I was
with my best friend, Brittanie, who pretty much saved my life back then just by
being my friend because she was the opposite of me—an intelligent, superstar athlete
who is now in medical school. But she encouraged me to check the scores online
even though I didn’t think they were up yet.
They were in fact ready—and I passed all subjects with
nearly perfect scores…and just like that I was done with high school.
From that point to where I am now, it took a lot of grit…I
experienced way too many obstacles, but time after time, I was able to overcome
them and that’s why I decided to write this article—I want to explain the
mindset that it took to get me from abandoned/neglected teen at risk not to
graduate high school to UCLA graduate/published author/experienced scientific
I continue to face obstacles to this day, but one of the
biggest challenges I have faced since day one is a lack of support/encouragement. But here is how I
deal with it:
I don’t take no for an answer. When one door shuts, I find another one to open. And I don’t stop until I get in. I call it optimistic relentlessness. Take rejection with a smile, move to the next door. Don’t focus on the rejection, focus on the possibilities.
I don’t give up. I had a mentor once tell me, if you quit one thing, you’ll start to quit everything. So something I tell myself when I’m lifting weights is that I can’t stop the set until I’m ready to cry. I apply this to real life, nothing I protest doing or want to quit is never really that bad…I constantly ask myself, “What happens if I don’t give up?” It’s more rewarding to speak to myself this way rather than just being demanding towards myself. There is quite literally a reward to not giving up.
I believe in myself even if no one else will.This is the most challenging part of getting to where I am. No one told me to go to UCLA, and I don’t report back to anyone about my accomplishments. I have always had to push myself and that requires igniting a fire within, trusting and believing that I AM capable and that I AM smart. No one thought that I would reach as far as I have, but it’s truly been a matter of telling myself YES I CAN. I shut out all opinions/thoughts and only listen to my own.
I nourish my mind with positive thoughts, inspiration and
knowledge. What keeps my fire blazing is that I find the resources and information I need to get where I need to go. This is driven by a desire to do and be better every single day so that I never fall back to the helpless state I was once in. The key to success is truly education, whether through a formal system or just the internet. I also use my blog as a source of inspiration because the quotes and things I post, I use as inspiration for myself so when I return to my blog, I always have inspiring reminders to keep me going.
I surround myself with people who are walking
similar paths. I learned early on to be around people who are doing the things I want to be doing. Again, it was a matter of survival and I knew finding the right friends was crucial for me to escape a potential future working at a fast food restaurant. I may not have had similar upbringings as most of my friends, but I managed to make quality friends because I put myself in places with people where we had similar end goals.
I don’t allow negativity in my life. If anyone talks down to me, disrespects me, or makes me feel anything less than great, I walk away. I do not tolerate any kind of negative energy in my life because I experienced enough of that in my early life. This is really adamant because it’s like trying to climb a mountain with heavy weight, if you drop the unnecessary weight, you can climb faster. Negative people/energy = heavy weight. Drop it. Get away from it. Don’t let it come near you! But don’t forget to check yourself either. Words carry energy, whether its talking to yourself or someone else, stay away from the negative energy zone! It’s completely unproductive for you and the world around you.
I forgive, frequently, very frequently. Similar to the climbing a mountain analogy, holding grudges and being angry at people is imprisoning yourself and is a complete waste of time and energy. I’ve learned to let go of the pain of my past because it held me back so much. I would have meltdowns…often angry about what my parents did and didn’t do. I wasted a lot of time and energy circulating those thoughts…when I finally let them go, I was free. The difference in energy was amazing. I didn’t feel pain or suffering anymore…From then on, I stopped holding grudges because I only want to hold positive, light energy in my soul and to do that, I have to forgive not just other people, but also myself…for not performing better, or forgetting to do something…It’s important to just let things go and keep your focus on your future. The past is over.
I give thanks to God. I believe there is a higher power that has kept me safe because I truly have good intentions…intentions to serve others and make the world better than when I found it. Whether you believe in a God or not, being grateful always makes life feel abundant. I struggled a lot on my journey, but I always took time to reflect on where I was, the doors that opened for me…I’m eternally grateful that I get to even breathe. The rest isn’t so bad when you realize you could be starving in a third world country or even be dead. But the more I say thank you for even the smallest things, the more blessings I seem to receive, because all of a sudden, everything is like a gift–the front parking spot, the free scoop of ice cream, the dollar on the ground…Plus, a grateful heart is full of joy. The more gratitude expressed, the more joy you will feel…and that joy can take you from being a miserable nobody to being a source of hope and inspiration for the world.
Who I am now from where I started was and still is an endless series of trial of error. I have achieved so much from where I began, but I worked HARD to constantly adjust my thoughts and I continue to every day because the journey never stops, and the obstacles don’t stop coming. I continue to become better, smarter, wiser and as I look back…I am deeply humbled by the moments of weakness that turned to moments of strength…And at the end of my life, despite all the failures/shortcomings, at least I’ll always know that I was fearless in this lifelong battle.
I wrote this because I truly want to see our society with less struggle and I want to see more people on fire for life…so this is me holding your hand through your journey and cheering you on screaming, “YES YOU CAN!”There is no reason why we can’t all be successful and it starts right now with the thoughts we carry, the mindset that we have…And if you, like myself, want to set fire to other candlesticks, share this knowledge! Share YOUR knowledge. Let’s not keep anyone in the dark…
…because the more fires we light, the brighter the world will be.