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Thai American students, the pride of their community, awarded scholarships

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Phitchaporn Genie Wungsukit receives a scholarship Saturday from the Angels Wings Foundation for her future studies at UC Berkeley.
(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Almost 20 years have passed since Ketwakarn Laitipaya let go of her lifetime dream of graduating from college.

The rent, the bills and her growing family forced both her and her husband to leave community college in Mission Viejo and focus on their restaurant jobs.

But in a different way, Laitipaya, 48, has realized her dream through her daughter Shelby, who will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall.

On Saturday, Shelby’s achievement was recognized with a $10,000 scholarship from a charitable organization that helps underserved Thai and Thai American youth.

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“I didn’t make it to university, but Shelby can go to university,” said Laitipaya, who immigrated to Orange County from the small town of Phatthalung in southern Thailand. “I feel so proud,” she said, tears pooling in her eyes.

During a fancy reception at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills, the Angels Wings Foundation awarded 41 scholarships to students who are the pride of their communities. Students nervously tucked in their collared shirts and smoothed their hair as beaming parents enjoyed the ceremony hosted by Thai community dignitaries.

Before the awards ceremony began, everyone stood for the Thai national anthem, with many in the audience singing along.

Porntip Bui Simon, founder and president of the foundation, along with Thai Royal Consul-General Mungkorn Pratoomkaew, presented each student with a certificate and leather portfolio and $5,000 or $10,000 scholarships.

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“You want to have a sense that they’re going to pay it forward ... if not with their pockets, then as an example to others,” said Simon, who selected the group out of hundreds of applicants with outstanding academic achievement and concern for the Thai community.

The students hail from California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington and will attend California community colleges, campuses in the Cal State University and University of California systems, and Ivy League schools, among others. Their intended majors include biology, neuroscience, chemical engineering, and world arts and cultures.

Reading the students’ names aloud, the emcee noted achievements including numerous honor roll citations, service awards and National Merit Scholarships. Some students, like Shelby, will be the first in their families to go to college.

Kevin Sinsommanat grew up in Glendale. His parents, both immigrants from Thailand, worked in a restaurant. Neither spoke English well.

“I had to learn a lot of things by myself,” Sinsommanat said. “If I had a math question or reading [trouble] ... I would have to look it up online or ask the teacher or figure it out.”

Sinsommanat is already enrolled in a summer program at UC Berkeley, where he plans to study business administration. Simon hopes the scholarship program, now in its third year, will foster a sense of ethnic pride and community among young Thai students.

“I know exactly where these kids are,” said Simon, a Thai immigrant herself alumnus of Pepperdine University and a former Miss Universe.

The one-time scholarships will support students attending community colleges and four-year colleges or universities. Recipients both demonstrated financial need and wrote an application essay about the significance of their Thai heritage.

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“Heart and ambition” is how Simon described the selection criteria.

Shelby Laitipaya has plenty of both. She said she cherishes having grown up in a house with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, who spoke mainly Thai. She repeatedly expressed gratitude to her parents for their hard work, to MIT for admitting her, and to Simon for the much-needed financial aid as she moves across the country.

She intends to major in brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and go on to medical school.

Shelby and her family just got back from visiting Thailand. They celebrated her college admission achievement with her grandparents, who were quick to note that she will attend the same university as the late king’s daughter. And to have a Thai celebrity like Simon help make it possible?

“They are so proud and so excited,” Shelby said.


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