Vietnamese-born nail salon worker enters US university at 55

By Hai Hien   June 18, 2024 | 09:05 pm PT
Thirty years ago Anh Tuyet dropped out of university to support her family. Now at 55 she is returning to university.

"I’m finally fulfilling my dream of earning a bachelor's degree before my 60th birthday," the manicurist, who lives in California, the U.S. says.

She has successfully completed the prerequisite English courses and is now eligible to enroll in undergraduate programs in nutrition.

Anh Tuyet (right) with her son Thien Truc. Photo courtesy of Anh Tuyet

Anh Tuyet (R) with her son Thien Truc. Photo courtesy of Anh Tuyet

When Tuyet was 20 and a sophomore in a university in HCMC, she had to make the hardest decision of her life: quit school and start working as a factory worker to support her family.

At 24 she got married, had children and opened a small diner to earn the family’s livelihood. Her younger days were full of challenges as she fell victim to scams, lost all her savings and piled up debts.

To clear her debts, she took on various jobs, from selling cement bricks to working as a real estate broker. Just when things started looking up, her husband passed away unexpectedly, leaving her with two children aged 13 and eight. Since then, she has taken on the role of both mother and father.

In 2010 Tuyet's family immigrated to the U.S. She got some training and later landed a job at a Vietnamese nail salon, where she worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week. "Being in a foreign country, I couldn't afford to fall ill because then who'd take care of my children?" she says.

Working alongside Vietnamese nail salon owners and staff, Tuyet found it challenging to communicate with local customers due to her limited English proficiency.

Being an extrovert who enjoys socializing, she took it upon herself to learn the language. With a hectic schedule, she opted for online language lessons.

Initially she started with cartoons to learn speaking and listening, as the animation was easy to comprehend. However, due to her busy work schedule, she had to pause her studies.

Five years ago, as her children matured and became independent, Tuyet's long-held dream of attending university resurfaced.

Tuyet felt even more determined when encouraged by her youngest child, who urged her to live life to the fullest by chasing her unfinished dreams.

She decided to enroll in English courses at Cosumnes River College for two years to meet the prerequisite for transferring to a university where she could study nutrition.

With the onset of Covid-19, her study plans had to be postponed. In the autumn of 2022 Tuyet started her English courses.

In the beginning she could understand only 50% of the English lectures, prompting her to allocate weekends for work and the remaining time of the week to studying.

Every day she devoted at least 12 hours to learning new words, listening to recorded lectures, and practicing English writing.

Given her limited computer skills and lack of experience using presentation software like PowerPoint, she had to invest significant time in getting used to technology.

She would occasionally doze off out of exhaustion while studying, but with the support of her children, she remained committed to her goals.

A page in Tuyets notebook was posted by her son on social media. Photo courtesy of Anh Tuyet

A page in Tuyet's notebook was posted by her son on social media. Photo courtesy of Anh Tuyet

Her diligence paid off as her grades gradually improved from C to B and eventually B+. When faced with comprehension challenges during lectures, she would listen to recordings many times after the class and jot down whatever she could hear.

Tuyet was also not shy of asking for clarification from professors and classmates when she could not understand something.

Besides, she thoroughly researched new topics in advance to grasp the core content better before attending lectures. "For example, when we studied about identical or fraternal twins in biology class, I would explore this topic in advance to gain more knowledge and learn related terminology."

This approach enabled her to grasp 90% of the lecture content when new materials were presented.

To improve her communication skills, she actively applied her learning by engaging customers in conversation at work. From asking simple questions and responding with short answers, she eventually became capable of holding longer conversations on a variety of topics.

In class, she demonstrated enthusiasm by actively participating in presentations and debates. Tuyet says there are three rules for speaking confidently in class: thoroughly prepare the lesson beforehand to grasp the content, use clear and simple words instead of overly complex vocabulary and speak at a manageable pace, and outline key points before speaking.

In less than two years, in early 2024, Tuyet passed the English exams, thus qualifying for university in her chosen major. Her dream after receiving her bachelor’s degree is to open a company specializing in counseling and caring for the elderly.

"To make further studies more affordable, I needed to strive for even better results to earn a scholarship," she says.

Seeing his mother's efforts, her eldest son, Tran Xuan Thien Truc, 32, says he has learned the rule of always finishing what he starts. "My mom always instills in me the importance of giving my best shot so I would not regret not doing so," home designer and constructor in California says.

Truc recently posted about his mother's efforts to study on social media with the message, "It's never too late to pursue your dreams."

Responding to comments on her son's post, when asked "What motivates you to continue schooling at 55?", Tuyet says once she has a dream she is committed to achieving it. "Others may underestimate you, but you must never belittle yourself. If there's something you truly desire, fight for it."

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