Vietnamese teen turns seashell souvenirs into Yale scholarship success story

By Le Nguyen   April 26, 2024 | 10:39 pm PT
A high schooler's unique seashell souvenir project has earned him a VND8.3-billion (US$330,000) scholarship to Yale.

Thai Vu Duc Anh is a 12th-grade student at Le Quy Don High School for the Gifted in the coastal province of Ba Ria - Vung Tau, a neighbor of Ho Chi Minh City.

With an SAT score of 1,530/1,600, IELTS 7.5, and an academic average score of over 9.7, Anh has been offered scholarships by three top U.S. universities.

He decided to go to Yale, one of the eight Ivy League schools, as it has been his dream for a long time.

Yale has announced plans to admit nearly 2,150 students from about 57,400 applications this year, making it the most competitive entrance in over 320 years.

Anh said that when he was third grader, his brother was admitted to several U.S. universities, which was an inspiration for him.

His older brother’s stories about life and study pushed Anh to try harder every day so that he could one day study in ancient buildings and make friends from different countries.

"Though we are 10 years apart, my brother and I are very close and talk a lot. My brother's progress is my motivation," he said.

In 7th grade, Anh's parents took him to the U.S. for his brother's graduation. During that trip, he visited famous schools and was especially impressed with Yale.

"The educational philosophy and the leadership and community change aspects that Yale emphasizes attracted me," Duc Anh said.

In Ba Ria - Vung Tau, students do not have as many connections to the outside world as in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, he said.

On several exchanges in Ho Chi Minh City, he was amazed when his peers participated in many extracurricular activities like debating in conferences modeled on the United Nations. Therefore, Anh decided to organize such activities for himself and his friends in his hometown.

In August last year, he held a debating camp in Ba Ria – Vung Tau, attracting over 200 participants.

Thai Vu Duc Anh speaks at a debating camp he co-organized for students in Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province, August 2023. Photo courtesy of Anh

Thai Vu Duc Anh speaks at a debating camp he co-organized for students in Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province, August 2023. Photo courtesy of Anh

Anh and his team invited experienced experts from many localities to train on public speaking and prepare for debates. The funding of VND80 million for the event was raised by him and his friends through sponsorships and selling tickets to watch the debates.

"At the end of the event, a 10th-grade student came to me and said how the event has created such a big inspiration that he wants to apply the model at his school. At that moment, I felt so moved and realized that all the hard work and effort in the past months were worth it," he said.

Anh said that through this, he once again felt he matched the criteria Yale was looking for - leadership and community change. The student wants to find ways to create positive changes for his friends around him.

Participating in many activities both at school and outside of school, Anh was sometimes questioned by others on why he needed to do so many extracurricular activities. Sometimes people wondered if he was biting off more than he could chew.

But for Anh, "participating in those activities is not because of coercion or to beautify my portfolio for studying abroad."

"I believe they are beneficial, helping myself and my peers develop skills," he said.

For his Yale essay, the question was how family circumstances have influenced curiosity and the ability to explore everything around, and the awareness to act and make changes.

In the essay, Anh recounted his childhood helping his parents sell souvenirs made from seashells.

In the past, the shop was always bustling with domestic and international tourists, and every time he consulted foreign customers, he would take the opportunity to ask about their stories. It was from those conversations, the curiosity about cultures and people from other countries made him want to study abroad.

However, in recent years, those products have increasingly lost their appeal. The business and production of handicrafts from seashells has dwindled.

To make a change, Anh created a fanpage on social media to promote craft village products, telling stories about the remaining artisans. Additionally, he built a website to connect local artisans and business households selling handicraft products.

"I also want to collaborate with some business owners to make a coffee with the theme of seashells and snails, and turn it into a characteristic of Vung Tau City," the student said.

Thai Vu Duc Anh presents souvenir products made of seashells and snails in his hometown of Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province, December 2023. Photo courtesy of Anh

Thai Vu Duc Anh presents souvenir products made of seashells and snails in his hometown of Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province, December 2023. Photo courtesy of Anh

Anh believes that the consistency and connection from extracurricular activities to the story in the essay and the desired field of study was a strong point in his application, helping the admissions committee see his personality and potential.

He said the most stressful time was from June 2023 to early January when he had to prepare for the scholarship. He had to seek ideas for essays, participate in many activities, and maintain good academic performance.

To maintain a balance, Anh built detailed plans and goals for each day and month. Important tasks would be noted several months in advance.

Doan Thi Van, a physics teacher and Anh's homeroom teacher for three years, still remembers the first time she met her student three years ago.

"Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the class met online for the first day in high school. When I asked for a volunteer to be the class president, Anh raised his hand, saying he had been in this position throughout elementary and middle school. I guessed he was very active and indeed he was," she said.

Anh studied hard in his subjects across the board.

Although specializing in Mathematics, he still scored high in all subjects, always being top of the class.

"Anh is very active, likes to connect with others, and has leadership flair. When giving tasks to him, both teachers and friends can be assured," Van said.

Anh's biggest desire is to establish a social enterprise in Vietnam. To achieve this, he has set a goal to learn and connect with many friends during his four years at Yale.

He will leave his hometown to study Economics at Yale this August.

"I plan to work while studying to have additional living expenses and gain experience for starting a business. After graduating, I will work in the U.S. for a while and then pursue a master's in business administration," he said.

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