SAN RAFAEL (KPIX 5) – When Nancy Phung was a senior at San Rafael High School, she told us she wanted to change her family’s history. In June 2013, she did just that, as she graduated from UC Merced with a degree in Business Management. “I’m super proud of myself, “ she says. “I can’t believe I did this.. I am creating new paths and new footsteps for whoever is going to come after me.”

It’s a big deal for her family as she joins her brother as the first in their family to graduate from college, the children of immigrants. It is certainly a long ways from the nervous little girl we met back in 2009.

An honors student and senior class president, Nancy Phung was a standout academically but it was her life at home that made her different from most of the kids at school.

“First school was a safe place for me, and then it started growing to be my home,” she told us. “She’s in and out of my room constantly,’ said her teacher Jeannine Thurston. “She’s in and out of the rooms of most of the teachers I know who’ve never had her!”

Jeannine Thurston knew Nancy only as a chipper, enthusiastic student, until one day she found her sitting outside the assistant principals’ office. When she asked Nancy what was going on and her story came pouring out and she began weeping. Her mother, a single parent, had cancer and the doctors had told her she did not have long to live. She’d gone back to Vietnam to say goodbye to relatives leaving Nancy and her siblings alone.

Thurston began to see this other side to Nancy’s life: “absolutely worried about being orphaned, and worried bout taking care of her siblings and worried about whether she could go to college, worried about how she would feed herself and how she would house herself.”

“The doctor told me she had six months to a year to live, and that I should spend as much time with her as possible before she actually passes away,” Nancy told us.

There was more history complicating her troubles. Her father fought in the Vietnam War with the Americans.

But the fighting for him continued at home in the United States. Finally he left and the money problems started.

“My mom couldn’t speak English. She didn’t know how to read. She could barely get a job,” Nancy explained.

Her mom worked late into the night. In high school, Nancy went to work to help pay the bills.

But her mother’s cervical cancer eclipsed the money problems, even when she returned home from her trip to Vietnam. How would Nancy survive on her own?

The teachers at school created her safety net. “Five to six adults just became immediately focused on figuring out exactly what was going on with her. Getting her as much help as we possibly could,” said Thurston. “She is family. The re is no question about that,” she added.

Nancy was lucky enough to go to a school where she could get this kind of support. “There are way too many kids like this.. With no parents, no money, no support in terms of understanding what it is you have to do to get an education,“ said Thurston.

By 2014, educators had come up with a term for that: “the opportunity gap”. “It’s hard to concentrate and focus on school, when you are trying to deal with just living!” says Stanford Education Professor Prudence Carter.

During college, Nancy had Students Rising Above to help bridge that gap, providing her with not just financial aid, a computer, and dorm supplies but more importantly an advisor and two volunteer mentors, Susan Kay and Kevin Fox.

It taught Nancy a big lesson: “It’s okay to have people reach out to you. It’s okay to reach out if you need help. it’s okay to cry.”

Four years, and a college diploma later, there is a happy ending to this story. Nancy’s mom is in remission, and was able to see her graduate from college. “She was so happy. She was shouting when I was walking on the stage. You know, this is something that back then, I didn’t think that this would …it would actually come to this day, so it was really, really exciting.”

Nancy is interested in marketing but her first job out of college is at the newest Target store in San Rafael, running the Starbucks Restaurant there.

There is something larger she hopes to do in the future, too. “I didn’t think I would make it (this) far,” she says. “I just want to be able to help people who were in my position, who didn’t get the help that I didn’t basically get when I was growing up.”

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