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Pagna Eam

Posted on February 24, 2011

Pagna Eam came to the U.S. from Cambodia at the age of 16. An 11th grader in her native land, she was placed in 9th grade at Attleboro High School because of her limited English skills. She graduated in June 2008 and then went on to earn an associate’s degree at Bristol Community College. She is now a sophomore at Wheaton.

About me. I was born in Otaki Village in the Battambang Province of Cambodia. Being the first in my family to go to an American high school and college, I feel pressure from many directions, but I am proud of myself. I can lead the next generation in my family and encourage them to go to college too.

Growing up in Cambodia, I experienced civil war, poverty and hunger. Each of these experiences is unspeakable for me—it hurts to think about them.

I came here in 2004. My older sister Pisey came the following year. We lived with a family in Attleboro, and I worked as an assistant at the Attleboro after-school program while I attended high school. When I was at Bristol Community College, I also tutored adult students in mathematics.

Major opportunity. I’m majoring in mathematics, but I also love computer science, biology, physics, chemistry and other subjects. I came to Wheaton because the college gave me the priceless opportunity to be here. I used to earn less than eight thousand dollars a year. I dreamed of coming here, but never realized I could--with the help of scholarships, grants, work and some loans.

Help along the way. My teachers at Attleboro High School talked to me about going to college, and how a degree would affect my future. They spoke particularly highly about Wheaton. My American “parents,” Bill and Patti Donlevy, and my sister Pisey guide and teach me daily to be myself. They are my teachers, family, mentors and friends. I am also here through the support of scholarship donors. They are my educational heroes.

Still working hard. I work as a math tutor at Norton Middle School, where I have developed customized methods of teaching geometry and algebra to young students. I also work as an assistant in the Wheaton greenhouses. I maintain and monitor the overall health of plants by watering, pruning, applying pest control and keeping the facility clean and stocked.

Activities? I am a member of the Asian American Coalition (AAC), the Interfaith Alliance and the Math Club. The AAC is my favorite, because it gives me a chance to learn about different countries, their traditional cultures, and their ways of life.

Culture shock. Students in Cambodia do not make eye contact when speaking to teachers, because it is considered disrespectful. Students stand up, bow and greet the teacher when he or she enters the classroom. They even water the garden and clean the classrooms and toilets. In the United States, students respect their professors, but they show this by being prepared for class, being engaged and making eye contact. It took me at least a year to adapt to the culture of making eye contact when I first entered American high school.

What I miss most about home. My mother. I have not seen her for six years, seven months and ten days. She was so close to me during my childhood. She taught me how to sew, plant fruits and vegetables, and cook Cambodian food. She also taught me Buddhist philosophy and how to chant at night.

Path not taken. If I had not come to the United States, I think I would be rocking my child or children to sleep right now. Most of my Cambodian friends married and had children when they were in middle school or high school. If I were in Cambodia, my life might be just like [those of] my Cambodian friends.

Aspirations? I want to travel and attend graduate school. My dream is to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. I would love to apply for the Watson Fellowship—I want to visit different countries to observe university math classes and learn how mathematics is being taught in different parts of the world.

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