In 1980, Cindy Phan was a sickly toddler, fleeing Nha Tran, Vietnam, on a rickety boat with her parents, her grandmother and her two older sisters. In 1994, she will stand before her classmates as an outgoing, determined, 16-year-old valedictorian of Kennedy High School.
Cindy remembers nothing of the arduous passage from Nha Tran to Hong Kong to California, but she has heard her parents tell the story countless times: As the rough sea pounded the crowded boat, a tiny bundle lay at the point of the rocking bow, too young to anticipate what her new life would hold.
Sitting on a couch in the kitchen of her modest Granada Hills home, as family members and workmen repairing earthquake damage traipsed in and out of the room, Cindy explained how that story and her vivid memories of the struggles that followed sparked her desire to excel.
“My parents worked really hard,” Cindy said. “It made me work harder. They expected us to get a better life than they had.”
The academic success has become a Phan tradition, making the family legendary at Kennedy, where Cindy’s two older sisters were valedictorian and salutatorian before her. Her two younger sisters, born after the family arrived in the United States, seem to be following the academic-excellence mold. Just inside the main entrance of the tidy house, nearly a dozen school plaques and awards hang on the wall. “It’s an incredible family,” said Kennedy academic counselor Karen Whicker, who has known four of the five sisters. “They’re all just dynamite.”
But the family’s beginnings in the United States were humble. After the fall of Saigon, Cindy’s father, who was a pilot in the South Vietnam army, spent three years in prison. Shortly after his release, with only about $20 and some family jewelry, they escaped to California, where both of Cindy’s parents took crash courses in English and vocational training. Cindy remembers sharing one of two bedrooms in a Los Angeles apartment with her four sisters and grandmother until the fifth grade. She remembers her mother and father working long hours at their jobs as a cashier in a gift store and an electrical technician, positions they still hold. But what she remembers most is that from the beginning, she wanted to do well in school and make her parents proud. She spoke Vietnamese at home but learned English quickly and skipped the second grade. In high school, taking as many honors courses as she could, she often stayed up until 3 a.m. studying. There was the tennis team, the academic decathlon team and community service work, but school always came first.
When Cindy heads to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September, it will be her first trip outside California. She started a weekend job to pay some of her college expenses, but grants and loans will cover most of her higher education costs--$29,000 a year. She plans to study biology and hopes to become a biochemist or a doctor.
“Whatever my parents had in Vietnam was thrown away,” she said. “I want to grow up and be well off so they don’t have to worry so much anymore.”