Hannah Truong knew the importance of helping others from a very young age. Only two decades ago, Hannah’s parents fled communist persecution and joined thousands of other Vietnamese refugees in the United States following the end of the Vietnam War. With few resources and no understanding of English, Mr. and Mrs. Truong relied on the generosity of strangers in their new community of Bellingham, Washington – and after Hannah was born, they relied on their daughter to transcribe the unfamiliar language for them. At doctor and dentist appointments and visits to the social security office, Hannah was always by their side – playing the role of translator for her parents, and helping them understand problems and situations she was too young to understand herself.
"It was a very difficult transition for them," Hannah said, as she recalled those early years of assisting her parents. "They received a lot of support from English language programs, and sponsors who helped them get adjusted to the United States, but after the first couple of months here, they were on their own. They were forced to get used to living in a world where they were outsiders. And for me growing up, I struggled with them as I learned my identity as an American and figured out how I would help them pursue the American Dream."
Because of the war, neither of Hannah’s parents got the chance to go to college, though Hannah’s maternal grandfather was once a prominent senator in Vietnam. For as far back as she can remember, Hannah knew that she and her sister were expected to do well in school and attend college, so they could achieve the dream that their parents never got the chance to pursue.
"From the instant I was born, it was my mother’s goal to send me to college," Hannah said. "It was always there."
How she would pay for college was another story. Though Mr. and Mrs. Truong told Hannah that they would do everything they could to support Hannah financially, their resources were limited, and it was up to Hannah to do her best in school so she could one day receive scholarships to pay for tuition.
The maturity that Hannah garnered from assisting her parents sustained her throughout her teenage years, and she soon realized that she could take the skills she gained and transfer them to helping the larger community of Bellingham. Hannah began to volunteer at an outreach center for the homeless, where she helped find simple resources – like a tank of gas or a place to sleep – for individuals who often had nothing more than what they could carry with them, not unlike her parents when they arrived in the United States only a few years prior.
"While I was volunteering at the outreach center, I often thought, ‘This was my parents once.’ They were facing a country where they had nothing, and relied on others to help them. This was my way of giving back for them," she said.
Paying it forward paid off for Hannah. After unknowingly being nominated by her local Dollars for Scholars affiliate, Hannah received the exciting news that she was the recipient of the 2013 National Dollars for Scholars Student Volunteer of the Year Award from Scholarship America. With the $1,000 renewable scholarship also came the opportunity to appear on Katie Couric’s daytime television show. Hannah appeared alongside Scholarship America’s founder, Dr. Irving Fradkin, in a feature that aired October 28, 2013.
"It was such a huge honor not only getting the scholarship, but also getting the opportunity to go out to New York for a day and represent Scholarship America on Katie," Hannah said.
"This scholarship and the others I received mean that I have a little bit less to be afraid of financially. College is a great adventure, and with my scholarships, I can fully explore this new world that I’ve entered and dedicate myself to finding new passions without having to worry about money."
Hannah is a freshman at Yale University and is considering a career in medicine. She continues to volunteer in her new community of New Haven, Connecticut.