Cambodian refugee appreciates opportunity to learn

Vichiry Yan

For high school dropouts … people who don’t take advantage of the help for college that’s out there… those of us who just plain take education for granted … a word of advice is waiting, courtesy of Vichiry Yan.

“Value your opportunities,” she says. “Start thinking of your future. Appreciate the resources you have. You don’t have to struggle for it like I did.” Vichiry made it to Stark State College, but it took the proverbial blood, sweat and tears to get here from “a place with no justice, no freedom, no light and no truth.”

Vichiry’s arduous journey to SSC began in 1981 when she was just a month old and her father walked with his family across the Cambodian border to a refugee camp in Thailand. The family, which eventually included Vichiry’s four siblings, eked out a living in the camp for more than a decade.

“It was about one kilometer square and soldiers marched around the border with guns, like a prison,” she said. “You’d get food rations once a week, barely enough to survive. Sometimes we’d go days without food. You didn’t care that much about freedom, you just wanted to survive. Every day you heard people crying, people dying.”

When the camp shut down after 13 years and the family was forced to return to Cambodia, “everyone looked down on us like dirt,” which is the same place the family had to sleep, Vichiry said. “My father wanted me to quit my education in middle school, but I had to a goal to go forward. I explained to him that education was important, so before school I would go to the market and sell firewood bundles and after school I’d cut and wrap them.” She was the only “refugee kid” to earn a high school diploma.

Her detractors won, it seemed, when Vichiry had trouble finding a job after high school. She applied for teacher training “because I hate when people look down on me,” she said. Sharing the importance of education with kids who didn’t want to come to school and parents who’d rather see their offspring at home helping with the work, Vichiry’s dream seemed to be dissolving. “There were so many road blocks,” she said. Still, any free courses on any subject – she was there. “The dream was still in my mind,” she said.

When the owner of the Cambodian airport offered her a job, she jumped at the chance. After a couple years, was promoted to a check-in position that gave her a chance to expand her horizons. I saw how people were educated in Europe,” she said. “It didn’t matter if you were male or female, rich or poor.”

In 2005 she met her husband, a U.S. citizen originally from Cambodia, and left the country. At first she struggled with how different life in Akron, Ohio was compared to what she’d known. Not knowing English, she struggled to make friends. “I thought, ‘What about my dream?’ So I decided to just start over like a baby. I learned the ABCs by watching PBS Kids, shows like Sesame Street and Curious George. After two years, I started watching some movies; I’d watch the same story again and again until I understood it.”

She progressed enough to get a factory job, where she was able to learn more English from coworkers. When she moved to Canton and worked at two jobs, “I saw professional people and I wanted to know, ‘How do I get there?'” she said. “The answer was to go to college.”

She started with English as a second language courses at a local university, but the cost was prohibitive. “One day I decided to stop at Stark State,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ll just try one semester.'” Fortunately, at SSC she met fellow Cambodian Kim Chhay, multicultural student affairs advisor, who helped her navigate the language barrier and unfamiliar waters. “The first day my hands and body were shaking,” Vichiry said. “I couldn’t find my class and couldn’t communicate enough to ask anyone.”

Now she’s in her fourth semester in computer engineering and plans to go on for her bachelor’s degree. “I’m not going to stop,” she said. “My goal is to show my daughter what’s possible.

A 4.0 scholar each of her semesters at SSC, Vichiry doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her when they learn of the hard road she’s traveled. “I just want it to prove that you can go from the very bottom to the top,” she said. In fact, she plans to make the leaders of Cambodia aware of her accomplishments, encouraging them to rethink their stance on education, especially for females.

“Education is something you will have for the rest of your life,” Vichiry said. “No one can take that away from you.”