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Graduating senior Anna Kien represents Wilson High on this year's Rose Festival Court

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Anna Kien and her parents pose for a photo after Wilson High's graduation.

Standing in front of a panel of judges during the Rose Festival Queen selection process, Anna Kien was taken aback by an unorthodox question.

"If you were a vegetable, what kind of vegetable would you be?" the panel asked.

A million thoughts flooded Kien's mind and she dreaded accidentally mistaking a vegetable for a fruit. But, suddenly, Kien had a moment of clarity.

She told the panel that when she was young, she considered a broccoli to be a little tree. And in her life, she wants to be like a tree — someone who provides longevity, life and a habitat for others.

Similarly, the tree would be an appropriate symbol to describe Kien's parents. The Kiens' sacrificed academic and professional pursuits to immigrate from Vietnam to the United States in the 1990s and provide a new life for Kien and her brother.

And their sacrifices planted the roots for Kien's placement on a Grand Floral Parade float and Veterans Memorial Coliseum stage as one of 13 Rose Festival princesses.

"My main motivation had to be with my parents. I know my parents worked hard every single day — long, hard hours," Kien said. "They knew they had to work hard for their children to grow up and be successful."

Kien is the founder of Wilson's Pacific Islander Student Union, a valedictorian, a former member of the Portland Public Schools District Student Council and participated in many other activities and clubs at Wilson. She tried out to be a Rose Festival princess in part because she felt she was a strong representative of the school.

"I've just been an ambassador for my school and I really wanted to make a lasting impact in my school and community," she said.

But along with representing her school, she wanted to also represent her identity as an Asian-American.

"Wilson being a predominantly white school, I wanted to show that Asian Americans and people of color could be leaders in their community," she said.

Kien met the minimum grade point average and community service requirements to apply for the distinction and then presented an initial speech to the Rose Festival Foundation. Later, she gave a speech and showed a video to Wilson High's students, who were partly responsible for choosing a representative for the school on the Rose Festival court.

Self-actualization was the theme of Kien's speech.

She recalled feeling reticent as an adolescent to embrace Vietnamese culture and instead tried to fit in to American culture. But after attending the Asian American Youth Leadership Conference her freshman year, she had an epiphany.

"That was the first time I've ever felt I've been a part of something," Kien said. "I've never seen so much faces that are like me and face the same struggles as me."

Kien said she also learned to appreciate her parents' many sacrifices.

"Everything they have done was so that I can play happy, the theme of this year's Rose Court Festival," she said in her speech to her peers. "Their endless years of blood, sweat and tears were so I can stand on this stage in hopes of joining the rest of the beautiful and brilliant women of the Rose Court to proudly represent our state of Oregon."

She closed with: "As I walk my final days though the halls of Wilson High School, I reflect back on my journey in discovering my self-worth. The journey that started with my parents' first step in moving across the world for me to play happy today."

The message must have resonated, because Kien was selected to represent Wilson High on the Rose Festival Court.

"It was very surprising," Kien said. "I was overjoyed and speechless."

During her time on the court, Kien served homeless populations, visited hospitals and retirement centers, performed a job shadow at KATU and completed individual and group interviews. She also stood atop a float during the Grand Floral Parade.

"Even though they don't know me personally, they smiled when I waved to them — whether it's a kid who wants to be a princess or is older and has been a part of it since they were young," Kien said. "I loved every moment of it, even though it was raining."

Kien said as the process unfolded, she gradually began to present a more authentic, light-hearted version of herself.

"I showed that I have an optimistic side," Kien said. "(I showed) I can crack a joke."

The experience culminated with the Queen Coronation at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Though Kien was not crowned, she said she cried tears of joy when Parkrose High's Kiara Johnson garnered the distinction.

"We crowded around her, hugged her, started crying," she said. "It was a huge moment. I was just so happy."

Kien will attend the University of Oregon Honors College next year and plans to study marketing or business.

"I really want to go into business because it's a versatile skill set," Kien said. "I don't want to do the same thing forever."

Throughout Kien's high school career, her parents have seen her study long hours and come home late after participating in clubs and activities. The Rose Festival princess selection was one of the first times they saw the fruits of their daughter's labor.

"They knew it was going to be a great honor. When they found out that I was selected they were overjoyed. My grandmother started crying," Kien said. "That was the moment they realized how I've made an impact on the community."

Contact Connection reporter Corey Buchanan at 503-479-2380.

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