July, 27 2014 02:00:00

Village student challenges cycle of poverty

Tay Thi Nguyen, a 20-year-old college student from Long An Province, defied all odds to pursue education. Even after her parents burned all her books, she continued to find ways to read. A New York Times column detailed her courageous story, calling her "graduate of the year". She talks to Thu Huong about the struggle to become the first person from her village to graduate from university.

How does it feel to have your story published in the New York Times? Why do you think your story about a girl from a small village really resonates with others around the world?

I was quite nervous to receive such recognition from the newspaper. It's a huge honour for me. I know that a lot of others have struggled even more in their lives, under more difficult circumstances.

Such praise motivates me even more to continue my education and increase my learning curve as I know that I'm not alone in this fight. I think my story can resonate with others because they can relate with their own families.

I want to fight to prove that "education is the key to escape poverty". That might be easier said than done. For the people who live in the far-flung and impoverished areas such as my family, it is very hard for us to honour that belief even though we know that education has transformed lives of many. I want to cultivate my own beliefs that my future can be brighter because of education.

My story has inspired others to realise that having supportive parents is already a privilege. I know that getting support of parents and family members can give a person incredible strength, but unfortunately, initially I did not have that privilege.

To study, you had to overcome obstruction from parents, poverty and people around you who might not value education the same way.

What was your most difficult obstacle?

For me, the biggest obstacle was overcoming the fact that I didn't have support from my mother. I could see where my mother's stance came from. Our family was too poor to support nine siblings and education was considered too luxurious.

I wanted to give up, but seeing several of my siblings drop out of school and go back into poverty, sent shivers down my spine. The help I received from Room to Read came at the right time.

From participating in activities organised by Room to Read, I realised that being poor was not a crime. But you can be punished for living without purpose.

After receiving support from Room to Read, I was also overjoyed that my mother's perception about education had changed. Since then, I have believed that education can also give you happiness at the same time.

Who taught you first about the power of education?

It is my mother. You might wonder why I said that because she was the one who burned my books. When I was little, she used to tell me that I was born to make her life more miserable and that we were poorer because of me. I had to prove to myself that I could do something and that I was not useless.

I started earning some money in 7th grade by picking grass, working in the fields and catching crabs. These jobs, however, could not give me a stable life in the long run. With just that, I could not change my mother's thinking.

When I was on the verge of dropping out of school, Room to Read helped me cover my school fees, books a bicycle and especially classes that provided me with living skills. I wanted to become an English teacher to inspire others in the village and have a chance to change their thinking about education. I wanted to open a place to help poor children study.

I know people in my village also want their children to study but sometimes it is impossible. Without education, children can easily fall back into that dreadful circle. It's that circle I want to break. — VNS

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