On quest to escape poverty, Vietnamese man earns dual master's degrees at top US schools

By Binh Minh   May 25, 2024 | 04:28 am PT
A man from a poor Mekong Delta family has attained master’s qualifications at two leading U.S. universities after graduating as valedictorian from a Ho Chi Minh City university.

Le Hai Phu, 31, and originally from Tien Giang Province, holds master's degrees granted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Carnegie Mellon University.

Phu described his journey to studying abroad as a series of efforts to fulfill his dream of escaping poverty and bringing his mother to the U.S.

Born into a farming family of seven children in Cai Be District, Phu grew up in poverty.

"To change my life and escape poverty, I had no choice but to study," Phu said.

Le Hai Phu. Photo courtesy of Phu

Le Hai Phu in a photo he shared with VnExpress.

In 2015, Phu was admitted to both Foreign Trade University and the HCMC University of Medicine and Pharmacy, but he chose not to pursue medicine because it would cost more and take too much time.

His goal was to win scholarships granted by the school for students with good grades during his four years at the university so that he would not have to pay tuition fees. He also took part-time jobs as a tutor to cover living expenses in the city.

Eventually, Phu graduated as valedictorian in international economics after achieving scholarships for seven semesters in a row.

At that time, Phu also wanted to seek a new environment to challenge himself and make his mother proud. He says his mother, a farmer at home, always dreamed of one-day setting foot in the U.S.

"My mother was the biggest motivation for me to study abroad," he said.

Instead of working full-time after graduation, Phu continued to work as a tutor and took several seasonal jobs to earn income.

At the same time, he taught himself English and studied on his own to prepare for a postgraduate entrance exam, and participated in extracurricular activities and charity work in HCMC and the Mekong Delta. This included building a bridge, opening a library, and offering a free mathematics tutoring course for poor students.

He also took advantage of free and short English courses at centers or classes taught by alumni.

After about a year of preparation, he took the IELTS twice, scoring 8.0-8.5, and the GRE with a score of 337/340. At the end of 2017, he applied to about 10 schools, aiming for universities that waived application fees.

Eventually, Phu was admitted to the Supply Chain Management program at MIT with $50,000 of support for one year.

In an essay, Phu discussed the paradox of bumper crops and low prices in Tien Giang's Cai Be District.

His hometown, traditionally a rice and fruit-growing area, often sees farmers unable to sell their products at high prices during the harvesting season due to a lack of connectivity and market outlets.

It is because farmers are accustomed to working individually without applying standards to their products and as a result, the quality varies.

In contrast, farmers in Thailand benefit from higher profits thanks to supply chains. Phu wanted to study more in this field, hoping to help locals develop a sustainable supply chain.

MIT has consistently ranked first in the world for its master's program in supply chain management. However, the school's support was not enough for Phu to go to the U.S. He continued to look for other scholarship sources with the help of benefactors and relatives.

"I was a bit scared, but I didn't have time to hesitate. Others have done it, and so can I," Phu said.

Initially, he struggled with the culture, language, and new learning methods. While his peers confidently expressed their opinions, Phu was shy and hesitant to speak up. He often had to record lectures to listen to again later.

Once he became more accustomed, Phu enrolled in more courses. At the end of the master's program, he graduated with honors and was commended.

"On the day I graduated, my mother came all the way from Vietnam to attend. She wore an ao dai that day. She was very moved when she heard my name and said 'Vietnam' when I received the degree," Phu said.

Phu and his mother on MIT graduation day in 2019. Photo courtesy of Phu

Phu and his mother on his graduation day from MIT in the U.S. in 2019. Photo courtesy of Phu

Returning to Vietnam, Phu worked on projects for friends in the U.S. and taught English and supply chain knowledge to students, aside from providing study abroad consulting.

Thanks to his accumulated experience and financial resources, he was better prepared for his second return. Phu continued to apply for roles in the U.S., shifting his focus to data science, a subject he had studied at MIT and was very interested in.

In 2022, he was admitted to the master’s program in Scientific Data Analysis at Carnegie Mellon University, with $20,000 in tuition support. This time, he also achieved excellent results.

In the letter of recommendation for the doctoral candidate, Gwendolyn Stanczak, Director of Graduate Studies at Carnegie Mellon stated that Phu was the top graduate with A+ grades in all courses and his thesis. "This is an unprecedented achievement for the department," she wrote.

According to U.S. News rankings, Carnegie Mellon is consistently among the top 20-30 universities in the country.

The two times she went to the U.S. to attend her son's graduation ceremonies, Phu's mother Truong Thi said she couldn’t be more proud. "When my son went up to receive his degree, I was so happy I almost burst into tears."

Nguyen Thi Quynh Nga, a lecturer at Foreign Trade University in HCMC, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Phu's application, said he succeeded because he had a high capacity for self-study, a progressive spirit, and is very serious about achieving his goals.

Phu currently lives in Tien Giang with his family, helping his nieces and nephews prepare for exams and working on several projects. He has been admitted to several doctoral programs and is weighing up his options.

Phu said it's crucial for one to truly recognize what one wants and be aware of one's capabilities to set goals. "Opportunities come when you're ready. To do that, you need to start step by step," he said.

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