Learning from a Young Student’s Life Story

Today I worked with a young man who is finishing UCLA and applying to medical school. For his personal statement, he told me about his life growing up in a studio apartment with five other people while his dad worked as a bag boy at a local Asian grocery store. This boy’s grandparents and his mother had stowed away in a big freighter so they could escape the brutal Communist regime in Vietnam in the late 1980’s. His father had travelled overland through Asia to Europe and then stowed away on his own commercial freighter. It took him four years to reunite with his family in Southern CA.

I was crying before we even got to the story of this young man’s grandma sitting down every day with him after school so he could tell her what he was learning in his homework. And how she related what he was learning to her experience growing up during war times in Vietnam. She always concluded those lessons with a comment about how much better off they all were in the U.S. His grandma died four months before her grandson graduated from high school. A sadness to him that was obvious in his telling of the story of her unexpected death during surgery.

This same boy made leather bracelets and sold them at swap meets every Saturday and Sunday during the summer before he started UCLA and every weekend during his freshman and sophomore years to help pay for his education. He graduates in just a few weeks with a 3.8 grade point and an impressive MCAT score of 34.

I said to him, “If your essay makes me cry, then it’s a good essay. Remember, these poor people read hundreds of these and they want to be touched.” I can assure you this will be a seriously touching essay when we finish it on Wednesday.

I am often struck with the extreme obstacles many of my fellow human beings have faced in their lives. In many cases (as with this boy), these people have developed a deep compassion for others as a result.

I know this young man will be a fine doctor and an even better human being than most. He has a quiet calmness and a quick laugh. I felt lucky to get to spend time with him today. He helped me to remember just how fortunate my own life circumstances have been and how important it is to really listen to the experiences of others. They have much to teach and I have even more to learn.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Mary Jo Doig says:

    A deeply touching life story, Len. Thank you. I identified strongly with your words: I said to him, “If your essay makes me cry, then it’s a good essay.” Tears were always one of my criteria when I edited True Words.
    I was also very moved when you said you were lucky to know him, for I know you both are lucky. Yes, deep compassion rises from pain for many who choose or are able to process it that way. A beautiful story. Thanks for posting it.

    1. Thanks, Mary Jo. A special boy.

  2. Nancilynn says:

    I want to know so much more
    How the grandmother survived as a stowaway on long voyage
    How she got aboard…
    I am pleased you helped with his story and that it made you cry.
    I have an essay written years ago about a friend fleeing south Vietnam as a child!
    Strong stories all.

  3. I want to know more too! Yes, a compelling story.

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