I walk into the classroom of plain white walls and white table desks. I grab the test and listen to my teacher say, “You have 60 minutes.” Sweat begins to drip down my forehead while my mind goes blank and my legs start to shake. You can do this. I open the test and look at the first question. No, you can’t. I always doubt myself. I’m afraid of failing. Yet I always manage to get decent grades. For a while that was good enough.
I’m the second oldest of four naturally talented, athletic, or intelligent siblings. I am not naturally talented, athletic, or intelligent. My mother said I had “good work ethic,” and I agreed with her. But I believed the work I was doing was pointless. Like most teenagers, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life or what my purpose on earth was. By tenth grade, I wanted to quit school entirely. I knew I couldn’t because education was important. But why was it important? Why was it worth it?
A family tragedy helped me figure it out. It was December 29th, 2016 when my family got a call saying my grandfather had died from a heart attack. In Hmong culture, the funerals last three to five days, and the preparation takes months. We were preparing for the funeral every single day, and my mother was sad. While my family cooked and made hundreds of paper boats, they talked about my grandfather. I learned that during the Vietnam War, my grandfather was held at gunpoint and forced into “re-education” camps, leaving his family in the refugee camp. To get him back, my great-grandparents had to buy his freedom with all the money that they had.
However, it was his struggles in America that changed his life the most. With very little knowledge of English, he found a way to navigate from Michigan to Minnesota, where there was more support and better jobs. He got a high school diploma, something he’d been wanting for a long time. He asked every one of his family and friends for money, and eventually earned enough to open the very first Asian grocery store in Minnesota. His friends and family trusted him because of his winning personality and character. He was genuine, ambitious, and an over-achiever. They trusted him because he was able to navigate long distances. They trusted him because he said he was going to get a high school diploma, regarding his English, and got it. He earned it and created his own opportunities. He wanted freedom and that’s what he got.
After the funeral, I was given a chance to create my own opportunities. It was the middle of March when we got registration sheets for the upcoming school year. One of the options was PSEO (Post-Secondary Education Option). This was an opportunity to study at colleges and get college credit, while also fulfilling high school credits; an opportunity to complete two levels of education at once. You can’t do this, I thought. Then, the words of my grandfather came to mind, If you want to be great, you cannot settle for comfortable. I decided I had to leave my cycle of self-doubt. I needed to move on. Like my grandfather, I had to persevere. He created his own success by achieving his ambitions. Education was the first step in doing so. I wasn’t going to allow myself to “settle for comfortable.” I was going to get an education and challenge myself with new knowledge. I was going to earn my own freedom. And so, I decided to mark the PSEO box. It was a little mark but a big decision.
Going into PSEO full-time was intimidating at first. I was a high school junior, sitting next to college juniors and adults in their thirties. I doubted myself because I had struggled in high school, but I was able to maintain a GPA above 3.5. School was something that I struggled with mentally, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually, but I knew that I could overcome it and I did. I found myself growing intellectually every single day and I want to continue. Because of PSEO, I was able to gain all kinds of new knowledge. I didn’t just learn about my classes, I learned how to improve natural human abilities such as communication and asking questions. Because of my grandfather’s stories, I was able to embrace all of the obstacles that I was going to face. His memory became my inspiration.
The legacy that my grandfather left was his freedom. His stories taught me that in order to succeed in my goals I must try new experiences and I must continue to be hungry for knowledge. Staying in my comfort zone, I never grew. Knowledge kept my grandfather going. Earning his diploma was his first step to freedom. The legacy that he left for his family is the legacy that I want to leave for my family. I want them to be inspired. I want them to create their own legacies. My grandfather’s words stick with me to this day and I only want to strive to be the best and never settle for anything less.