It has been only six years since Thao Xuan Do came to America from Vietnam with her mother, unable to speak any English and unsure of her prospects in a new country.
Yet it did not seem to surprise any of her professors, advisors, or classmates to see Do standing on stage at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s 42nd commencement to accept the John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence --the highest honor given to an undergraduate.
In fact, for many who know the 26-year-old chemistry major, the honor was almost expected.
“Thao has become a shining star at UMass Boston,” said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Deyang Qu, Do’s research advisor.
Do, a Norwood resident, has not only learned English and excelled in her classes: This August she will head to Bethesda, Maryland, to work side by side with the world’s leading scientists as one of just 16 finalists selected from 600 applicants nationwide for the prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) Academy fellowship.
She will spend the next year engaged in biomedical research, working toward the elimination of domestic health disparities. Then she plans to attend medical school.
At the June 4 commencement, Do stood before a sea of graduates and guests and spoke of her journey.
“Hom nay con tot nghiep. In English this means, ‘Today I’m a college graduate.’ I wanted to start out this speech in Vietnamese because it is the language I first learned to speak and express myself with,” Do told the audience. “It is a very short and simple statement. But yet, for me and many of us here today, it has been a long journey before we could say it.”
She told fellow graduates that it was OK to make mistakes.
“We learn from our mistakes and we grow significantly,” she said. “Therefore, don’t cover them, but integrate them into your background, your character, your personality. The most successful person in life is not the one who never makes mistakes, but the one who knows through trial and error how to turn a rock into a gem.”
Do plans on becoming a doctor and says she will dedicate her life and research to the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Growing up just outside of Saigon, she witnessed HIV and AIDS take hold of many young people who had turned to drugs and prostitution in a neighborhood where the fight for food and survival was more important than education.
A trip to Cape Town, South Africa with the University Honors Program in January only strengthened her drive to work toward eliminating the disease. There Do saw firsthand the social, economic, and political aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic there, volunteering in local clinics.
“There were so many moments in the trip when tears and feelings could not be kept suppressed no matter how hard I tried,” she said.
Do’s professors say she will make a great doctor and researcher.
“At our very first meeting, I sensed in Thao not just a sharp mind but a relentlessly questing intellect,” said Rajini Srikanth, director of the University Honors Program at UMass Boston. “She is not satisfied with what she knows and is always interrogating how she knows what she knows.”
She would often stay at school from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., going over lab experiments, posing questions to professors, studying, or helping classmates grasp a lesson.
“She would come to my office several times a week, seeking to expand her understanding of the concepts well beyond what she needed for my course,” said Assistant Professor of Chemistry Timothy Dransfield. “On more than one occasion, she brought me a paper that greatly increased my knowledge of a particular lab experiment.”
While at UMass Boston, Do has also interned with the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She takes time out of her schedule to teach Vietnamese to American-born Vietnamese children, and organizes cultural events at a Vietnamese community center in Dorchester.
Do said she credits her time at UMass Boston with helping her to build a strong foundation and giving her the self-confidence to accomplish her future goals.
“One of my first professors told me that in order to learn something, you need to step out of your comfort zone,” Do said. “I came here unsure. But now everything seems possible. I feel like I can do it all.”
The undergraduate JFK Award is given to one student who demonstrates an excellent academic record, has a commitment to service, and acts as a good citizen of the university and the world. Each year, the award recipient receives a $1,000 honorarium, a bust of John F. Kennedy, and the opportunity to speak at their commencement ceremony. Do is the 34th JFK Award winner.
“When choosing the winner of the John F. Kennedy Award, we look at not only academics and service, but students’ overall contributions as ‘citizens’ of this university and of the world,” said Chancellor J. Keith Motley. “That is why I’m so pleased to honor Thao with this award: While her achievements so far have been impressive and many, she looks at this as just the beginning. It is her dreams that are truly inspiring.”