York Tech alum realizing the American dream at Brown

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch
  • Lisa Nguyen, 17, from Spring Garden Township, is in her first semester at Brown University.
  • An alumnae of York County School of Technology, she credits the school and past educators for her continued success.
  • Nguyen said she discovered a flaw in GPA calculations that affected the outcome of class rankings during high school.

Lisa Nguyen can recall March 30 like it was yesterday.

It was “Ivy Day,” the day when the most prestigious schools in America — or the world — send responses to applicants regarding whether they’ve been accepted.

Lisa Nguyen, 17, poses with her graduation gown and awards at her home in Springettbury Township Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. She graduated as valedictorian from York County School of Technology this year and is attending Brown University this fall. Bill Kalina photo

Lisa, 17, had applied to several of them: Brown, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, along with many top-tier research universities.

On Ivy Day, she opened the answers all at once, and at once she reacted.

All of the letters either accepted her or placed her on a waiting list for acceptance.

“I was crying hysterically,” Lisa said, “and I called (York Tech math teacher Melinda Fink) before I called my mom,” she added, laughing.

Now Lisa, an alumna of York County School of Technology, is about a month and a half into her first semester at Brown University, where she is studying pre-med and has been cheering on the Brown Bears football team as a member of the school’s varsity cheerleading team.

Lisa said she understands how luck has played a role in her success but added that her determination to succeed and learn played an even bigger role in landing at Brown.

“I worked my butt off to get where I am right now,” she said.

Humble beginnings: For most of her life, Lisa lived in York City and attended Phineas Davis Elementary School (now Davis K-8).

The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Lisa took on many responsibilities from a very young age.

She said she has translated for her parents since the age of 5, conversing with teachers, doctors and most other English speakers her family has come across in the past decade.

Lisa's family responsibilities didn't bog down her studies, however. Her academic performance was so advanced that she had trouble taking appropriate math courses in York City.

Lisa skipped fifth grade at Davis, though she stayed at the school as York City schools were transitioning to a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school model as part of the district's financial recovery plan.

During seventh grade, Lisa's Gifted Individualized Education Plan wasn’t followed, she said. One school year, she took a trigonometry course with a private tutor.

In the middle of eighth grade, Lisa moved out of the district. She spent the second half of that year at Central York Middle School.

Lisa Nguyen, 17, shows her academic awards at her home in Springettbury Township Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. She graduated as valedictorian from York County School of Technology this year and is attending Brown University this fall. Bill Kalina photo

Though Central “definitely met my standards,” Lisa said, the school didn’t feel quite like home.

Luckily for Lisa, she had another option. She enrolled at York County School of Technology in 2013 to study medical professions.

At the vocational school, Lisa flourished: She continued her high academic performance, became heavily involved in extracurricular activities such as the cheerleading team and logged 485 hours of community service, according to Fink.

At one point, Lisa said, she even helped the school correctly calculate grades for students.

GPA-gate: Lisa was second in her class by her junior year, showing a 99 GPA out of 100, and the score — while very high — seemed off to her, as the advanced placement courses she took and exceedingly passed didn't seem to count as much as they should.

“I was taking all honors and AP (courses), and all classes were over a 95,” she said, “so I recalculated everything on my own.”

Her suspicions of a flawed GPA were right: She found several of her AP courses were not weighted properly, giving her a lower GPA.

She said she showed her work to her technical program instructor, her guidance counselor and later, school administrators, who ended up correcting the error.

After the recalculation, Lisa had a 103 average and became first in her class.

Lisa went on to graduate this past June, and she said she was satisfied with her valedictorian speech, which focused on overarching themes of embracing diversity and helping others on the way to personal success.

She recalled York Tech's difficult first semester in the 2016-17 school year, in which some students were recorded walking down the hallway with a Donald Trump campaign yard sign while chanting "white power."

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She said she was walking right behind the student who recorded the incident and said that while she knew political tensions existed, she was shocked at the behavior of some students.

"There's this subconscious divide at Tech," she said, in which students are classified in many ways by which school district they came from.

She added the school's spirit team, which many of her friends are involved in, helped the school greatly improve its campus climate and culture.

"We needed to accept that we are diverse instead of acknowledging that we are diverse," she said.

'Hands-off' family: During her address to students during her commencement in June, Lisa said, “You know, after all these years I thought my parents would’ve learned English by the time I graduated, but it’s OK because they still don’t understand me.”

Then, in Vietnamese, Lisa said to her parents, “Thank you, Mom and Dad, for all of your support. I love you,” garnering cheers from her peers.

She said her parents have always been “very hands off” when it comes to her education and are still unaware of the totality of her success.

“They say congratulations, but they don’t know the caliber of the school I’m going to,” she said.

“When I told them about getting into Brown, they said, ‘Oh, how far is it? Is it a good school?’”

Fink, who taught Lisa advanced calculus at York Tech, called her a “once-in-a-lifetime student” who showed determination at a level Fink says she’s has never seen.

“I don’t know of a thing she can’t do,” she said.

“Even her notes were above and beyond. She would write down almost everything I said,” Fink remarked.

Fink has a notebook from Lisa that she periodically reviews when she forgets how she taught a certain math lesson to students.

“It was almost like me talking on her notes,” Fink said.

Brown and beyond: Lisa stays in touch with Fink and other educators who have inspired her along the way, and she says York Tech is helping her excel at Brown.

“I’m taking chemistry right now, and they use terminology I’ve been familiar (with) from my (workshop) at Tech,” she said. “It’s given me a unique advantage at Brown.”

Fink said Lisa embodies York Tech's commitment to educate students and prepare them for further education.

"Many people say why go (to York Tech) if you want to go to college," she said. "Lisa is proof that a student can get a great education as well as a technical education and college is achievable — even an Ivy League school."

Lisa said she “wasn’t particularly excited about leaving for college” because she expected culture shock but added she has processed the transition well.

“The affluence was really intimidating, but I acknowledged to myself that I worked very hard to get here and earned my acceptance (to Brown),” she said.

Along with her net full ride at Brown, Lisa was chosen as one of 40 freshman students to be part of the Bonner Fellowship at the university.

The program aims to get students working with community organizations in Brown’s Rhode Island region to address local problems concerning education, health care, environment, economic justice and the arts.

Lisa is matched with the Rhode Island Public Health Institute in Providence, Rhode Island, and works in community outreach.

After Brown, Lisa plans to continue her education and become a medical doctor.

“I love learning for learning,” she said, “and I’m very fortunate to have had teachers guiding me throughout the way.”