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Vietnamese Immigrant Receives Academic Excellence Award at SCC as a Part of Her American Dream Story


Thao Ly, who graduated with an Associate in Science and an Associate in Arts, was the North Carolina Community College System Academic Excellence Award recipient for Surry Community College in 2020-2021.

SCC President Dr. David Shockley met with Ly in a private ceremony since she was unable to attend the May 2021 graduation because she was moving to the West Coast. She was given a commemorative gold medal and a letter of congratulations from the North Carolina Community College System's president, Thomas Stith, III. Ly had a 4.0 GPA and was on the President’s List every semester she attended SCC.

Ly and Shockley
SCC President Dr. David Shockley presents The North Carolina Community College System Academic Excellence Award to the 2021 recipient for Surry Community College, Thao Ly.

Each spring, one student from each of the 58 community colleges in the North Carolina Community College System is recognized for excellence in academics. According to the system's website, selection of the academic excellence award recipient is based on a single selection from each college. Selection is consistent with Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society criteria and includes the recipient being currently enrolled and having completed at least 12 semester hours in an associate degree program with a cumulative grade point average of no less than 3.25. Colleges may use additional scholarship criteria beyond these minimum requirements.

Ly’s journey to Surry Community College was anything but typical. Her mother, Phuong N. Nguyen and father, Hung V. Dang surprised her five years ago saying they were leaving their home in Vietnam to make sure she received an excellent education. “One day, my parents just told me that we would move to the States for better chances and for a better life as well as a better future,” says Ly.

“When we first moved to the States, we lived in Rochester, New York,” says Ly. “It was a beautiful city with colorful leaves in the autumn and crystal snow in the winter. It just happened so fast, so suddenly and when I first arrived, I had no idea what school I would attend. I remember taking city buses with my mother around the city to find a suitable high school for me. At the time, it cost more than $10,000 a year to attend a private high school in Rochester.”

Ly decided to attend a public high school, School Without Walls. In addition to school, she also went to Rochester Public Library to attend free English classes. “And there, I met my life savior, Mrs. Chojy Schroeder, a retired English teacher and board member of the Rochester City School District,” Ly explains.

“She recognized my commitment to and passion for education, so she introduced me to the Regents Exams. I collected practice problems online and studied by myself for almost two months before taking the Regents Exams,” Ly says. “I passed these exams with such high scores that I was then placed in 12th grade.”

Ly was in tenth grade when she had left her home in Vietnam. “And like a miracle, I became a high school senior. I skipped 11th grade.”

Her high scores on the Regents Exams also helped her receive a scholarship to attend Our Lady of Mercy School for Young Women, one of the most prestigious high schools in Rochester. She had only been attending School Without Walls for a few weeks.

“During my senior year at Our Lady of Mercy, I got a chance to make lasting friendships and participate in many volunteer activities” explains Ly. “I volunteered at InterVol, where I helped sort out, arrange, pack, and distribute medical supplies. I also volunteered at the University of Rochester, where I became a math and chemistry tutor for students in grades sixth through ninth.

“Additionally, during my senior year at Our Lady of Mercy, I did my senior project on antacids and how these medicines work to relieve heartburn. I received a Chemistry Achievement Award from American Chemical Society that year,” says Ly.

Ly found herself in Dobson when her parents signed a contract with Wayne Farms to provide immigration sponsorship for her family to move to the U.S. Because her parents do not speak much English, Ly was too worried to attend a four-year college/university, leaving her parents alone in North Carolina.

“My mom was a teacher in Vietnam and so, working at Wayne Farms, a chicken factory, was mentally a challenge for her. As she is getting older now, her health is not as good as before. It would be too selfish of me to leave my mom alone working at the chicken factory to attend a boarding university/college at that time.”

Ly continued, “The moment I decided to stay in North Carolina and attend SCC was the moment I realized that I truly grew up somehow. I'm a girl with big dreams and ambitions, but I always make sure to put my family first under any circumstances. Honestly, I'm just so thankful for having a chance to study in the U.S., and for me, we can study anywhere as long as we have a passion for learning to broaden our horizons.”

She explains how she learned to speak English. “Many people might assume that I attended some sort of academy to learn English before coming to the U.S.,” says Ly. “I spent my elementary and middle-school years in the countryside of the small province in Vietnam. There weren't many resources or facilities for English-learning opportunities.”

Ly remembers learning and improving her English mostly by watching movies and TV shows like “Harry Potter,” “Wizards of Waverly Place,” and “Criminal Minds,” some of her favorites. She also listened to Taylor Swift music whom she has admired for the past nine years.

Thao Ly
Thao Ly

She also remembers studying 20 to 30 vocabulary words and doing English exercises by herself every day. “I also improved my English skills through traveling to foreign countries with my parents,” says Ly.

While at SCC, Ly was very active in student activities. She was named to The National Society of Leadership and Success where she received the National Engaged Leader Award. She was also a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, the Mu Alpha Theta Math Club, and the Golden Key International Honor Society. While at Surry, she helped plan and coordinate fundraisers and events for organizations such as the Little Free Pantry, the Care Closet, Halloween Spooktacular, and the Annual Surry’s Got Talent.

She also volunteered as a teaching assistant in the SCC Science Department beginning in the fall semester of 2020. In that role, she assisted the professors and students with learning material and lab activities in science classes including General Biology, Microbiology, General Chemistry, and Organic Chemistry.

“Taking on the role of a teaching assistant in the SCC Science Department, I hoped to help students stay inspired, empowered, and focused despite the difficulties and challenges during the pandemic,” explains Ly. “I also hoped to help the professors maintain a stimulating classroom environment during this tough time.”

As part of the application process for the Academic Excellence Award, Ly wrote an essay “My Heart Has Never Been This Full” describing her experiences at Surry Community College stating that they “far exceeded my prayers and expectations.”

“During my time at Surry, I lost, failed, succeeded, cried, laughed, loved and above all, I learned,” said Ly. “I learned not only new knowledge and skills, but I also learned how to care for others and create as many significant moments as possible. Surry has helped me perceive that there is one thing better than reaching the top in life: Reaching down and helping someone else rise to the same level.”

She plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology and a doctoral degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences at a college or university on the West Coast.

“I love organic chemistry and biology courses such as cell biology, molecular biology, microbiology, and genetics.” She hopes to work in research and development at a leading biopharmaceutical company like Pfizer, Moderna, GlaxoSmithKline, Takeda, Roche, Novartis, Sanofi, or Abbvie.

“This journey will be challenging, and even exhausting. But you know, when we are determined to do something, we will find the ways, and when we don’t want to do something, we will find excuses.”

“I’m so thankful to see that I’ve gone this far. My parents don’t speak much English, but they always support me and embrace me with their love. I’m thankful to them for taking me to the States, a country that makes me feel like everything is possible. I’m also thankful to all those amazing people who pushed and inspired me to be a better person every day.”

Ly continued, “Since we first came to America, we have been through a lot, but to me, all these experiences have turned me into a stronger person and made me unique in my own way. Most people hate the word ‘Impossible,’ but I especially like this word: If you break the word down, it means that ‘I'm possible.’ To me, anything is possible if we set our mind to it.”

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