Pagna Eam, an immigrant from Cambodia, earned high grades at Bristol Community College and will now be attending Wheaton College. (Staff photo by Mike George)
Saturday, June 5, 2010 BY GEORGE W. RHODES SUN CHRONICLE STAFF (Attleboro, Massachusetts, USA)
Pagna Eam hopes she doesn't cry when she walks across the stage today to collect her associate degree in general studies from Bristol Community College.
But if she does, she's due.
Her graduation from BCC marks an important milestone on a long hard trip that began six years ago in Cambodia, when her mom, fearing for her safety in a politically unstable and violent land, sent her then 16- year-old daughter halfway around the world to the United States to seek a better life and freedom.
And while the journey for Eam, who aims to become a math professor, is not nearly done, she's well on her way. Now almost 22, Eam has learned English and graduated from high school.
She finished second in her class at BCC with a 3.91 grade point average and is heading to Wheaton College to study mathematics.
She will enter the highly regarded Norton school as a sophomore in September. Wheaton has given Eam almost a full scholarship, which is bolstered by loans.
The enthusiastic and dedicated young scholar is well known at BCC for arriving every day on her bicycle, her main mode of transportation. With little money, it's all she can afford. But she's not complaining.
Eam says she's grateful for the help she's gotten along the way and plans to keep peddling until she can afford a car and a home of her own.
But the journey can only be made "one step at a time," she said, adopting a version of the college vision statement often repeated by President John Sbrega: "Bristol Community College changes the world by changing lives, learner by learner."
"I believe in his philosophy," Eam said.
Her biggest challenge so far has been learning English and going through high school at the same time, she said.
"Sometimes I would be up to 2 in the morning, translating my homework, making sure I understood it, she said.
"My Cambodian to English and English to Cambodian dictionary is this thick," she said spreading her fingers a good 6 inches. Eam lives with her sister Pisey Eam, 26, who came to the United States in 2005, in the home of Bill and Patti Donlevy on Pearl Street.
Donlevy, a social worker, is well known for his work with immigrants, and Eam considers the Donlevys her American parents.
Eam credits another sister in Cambodia, Yaneth Ourn, with pushing her to learn math and teaching her how to be a good sister, daughter and citizen.
"She was a stern teacher, but a good teacher. She taught me well and she wanted me to have a better life," said Eam, who is now fluent in English and has picked other forms of communication like the "high five" which she gave to a reporter who successfully used the Cambodian pronunciation of her name.
Eam herself is far from stern, with a smile nearly always on her face.
She's already gotten a good start on her teaching career by tutoring more than 50 fellow students in math.
But her students have been teachers, too, she said.
They've helped her with her English and they've taught her how to teach.
"I learned to slow down and take things step by step," Eam said.
She's also earned praise working in the school department's Abacus childcare program.
While Eam is clearly a good sister and good daughter, she needs to wait one more year before she becomes a good citizen.
She's been a permanent resident of the United States for four years and needs one more before she can apply to become a citizen - and she can hardly wait.
Once a citizen, she'll feel safe enough to visit her mom in Cambodia.
Without the American shield to protect her, she's worried she might not be able to get out of her homeland.
But when she goes, she'll have the money, thanks to students and teachers at Attleboro High School who raised $2,000 for the trip.
It's a painful wait because Eam wants to see her mom, who's now in her 70s and ailing. She hopes to bring her to America for the medical care she needs.
But in the meantime, she talks to her by phone twice a month and today will have her close to her heart by proudly wearing a handmade traditional Cambodian outfit her mom sent to her.