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Vietnamese student attributes her success to college readiness programs and mentors along the way.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Ha-Quyen Nguyen recently graduated from Portland State University with a double major. She credits help from the College Possible program. The earliest memory Ha-Quyen Nguyen has of her birthplace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is five dolls.

Carefully crafted out of newspapers, the dolls represented Nguyen and her four older sisters.

She often paired them with a cardboard playhouse and a miniature wooden bed that her father constructed. Together, they would carve the dolls' clothing using leftover newspaper clippings.

"We didn't have a lot growing up, so I didn't have the regular plastic Barbies or anything like that," Nguyen said. "My parents didn't want me to miss out on anything."

Nguyen also made sure she didn't miss out by seizing her future, taking advantage of college readiness programs and graduating from Portland State University and College Possible, a program for low income students, in just three years.

And that is exactly what her family had hoped for when immigrating to America in 2004.

With waning opportunities in the fall of that year, Nguyen's parents knew they had to leave Vietnam.

"There wasn't any opportunities for girls, for women," Nguyen said. "My mom never was able to go to school."

Nguyen said all that they forfeited paid off when she and her sisters fulfilled their dreams. Her oldest sister lives in England working as an administrative assistant. Her second sister is a pharmacist in Vancouver, Washington. Her third sister is moving to California in February to pursue an acting career.

Nguyen and her fourth sister graduated from PSU this year.

"My mom, her whole life people have looked down on her because she doesn't have an education," Nguyen said. "She is living her dreams through us."

Nguyen, 21, who graduated from PSU on June 16 with a double major in business management, leadership and human resources, was the college's first College Possible graduate, a program built to coach and support low-income students through the admission and attendance process. Nguyen attributes her successes to College Possible.

After immigrating to Portland at age 5 on a sponsorship, Nguyen and her family slept in one room of their aunt's house on Northeast 82nd Avenue for a year. Nguyen knew at age 10 she wanted to go to college, but doubted she could finance it.

Once her family moved into their own house in 2010, she attended Reynolds High School in Troutdale, where she soaked up all the guidance she could by joining College Possible and the Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, college readiness program.

"It's fun to see kids who have not been served in that way, grow wings and the confidence to fly," said the former AVID director Doug Beardsley.

Teresa Osborne, Nguyen's AVID, government and politics teacher, said the same about her. "HaQuyen was a focused, organized, and determined student," Osborne said in an email. "She knew she wanted to go to college. She knew she would need help and support to get there, and would need to listen to the advice of many adults to help her."

"College Possible and AVID work well together," Osborne said. "Some kids might only be able to do AVID, some might only be able to do College Possible, but for the kids who can participate in both, it generates a larger network of support."

Nguyen said the early stages of College Possible were tedious, like training for the ACT college placement test.

"Imagine every weekend for about a year, you have to wake up at 7 a.m. to get to Reynolds at 8 and take your ACT practice until 12 p.m.," she said, emphasizing the word practice. "Everyone hated it. I hated it."

Yet when everyone saw their real ACT results, she said, they were thankful for the push.

Considering the future

When Nguyen applied to colleges in her senior year of high school, financial worries resurfaced. Her College Possible coach that year, Briana Falduti, guided her through the scholarship process.

"She was the person who made me realize I was using the financial barrier as an excuse to not motivate myself," Nguyen said.

She wound up receiving the Dale Krueger scholarship, for graduates pursuing higher education from the Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds and Centennial school districts. This allowed her to attend PSU debt-free.

There, she joined the TRiO student support services program. She also landed a campus job and met her advisor, Linda Liu.

TRiO serves first-generation college students who are low income and have an academic need.

"I don't really feel like I helped Quyen with anything," Liu said. "I felt like a lot of the time, I was just riding in the back seat and going wherever she wanted to go."

Liu, student support services program director, said she bonded with Nguyen through their Asian background and first-generation status. "It's sometimes what I call the secret handshake," she said.

When Nguyen mentioned she was planning to join AmeriCorps and become a College Possible coach after graduation, Liu said she was "just so tickled" that Nguyen wanted to serve the community.

"I told Quyen when she becomes famous she needs to remember us little people," Liu said, laughing.

AmeriCorps staff, who are recent college graduates, serve as mentors for College Possible students, said Julie Mancini, executive director of the Portland branch of College Possible.

"They're being coached by someone who just went through what they're trying to begin," Mancini said.

Breaking barriers

The Portland branch of College Possible, which is free for low-income students, currently serves 520 students from six local high schools, plus 150 students from rural Oregon schools, Mancini said.

Eighty percent of College Possible participants wind up graduating from college, she said. "It helps break the cycle of poverty."

Nguyen said College Possible acts as a voice for underserved students.

"These are the students that are low-income, first-gen. and they don't have the finance to go to college, but this program is changing that," she said. "They're serving students who kind of feel like they don't matter."

As a first-generation student, Nguyen felt a weight on her shoulders to prove herself. "I knew that I was living with that weight for a long time."

College Possible, AVID and TRiO provide students with paths they don't initially visualize, she said.

After a year or two mentoring students like herself, she plans to attend graduate school and become a dean or an international business project manager. She aspires to one day journey to Hong Kong, Singapore and even Vietnam again.

"I have two paths right now, don't know which one I'll take yet," Nguyen said. "But College Possible, and being a coach will lead me to where I need to go."

Reach Ainslie Cromar at 971-204-7878, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

or follow her on Twitter at @ainsliewcromar

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