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Kristen Cyr
Web Content manager

Cambodia native pursues education
with hopes of one day aiding his country

July 15, 2016

Photo of Tho Mith Chin Tho Mith Chin

Growing up in abject poverty in his home country of Cambodia, Tho Mith Chin wanted only one thing: an education.

He had heard all his life that the way to become a successful man would be through education alone, and although he'd never seen what that would look like, it was all he dreamed of.

But his mother, who raised him and his younger sister, Themy, as a single parent after her divorce, could not afford the tuition, which was equivalent to about 50 cents per month. Though he had been working in a bakery part time since elementary school, he had a financial shortfall he needed to make up.

"I decided to hide myself behind a tree in the backyard of the temple next to an English class," recalled Chin. "One day, the monk found me and told me, 'You should not do that anymore.' I was so scared."

But instead of banishing him from the school grounds, the monk invited him into the class. There he learned basic English, math, Khmer literature, chemistry and computers – all subjects that he could never have paid for. "I've always pushed myself to try to study," said Chin.

He wrote about his experiences in an essay he titled "Overcoming Poverty" for his ENGL 1010 class. Read his full essay here.

His mother reconnected with his grandfather, who had left Cambodia after a civil war and resettled in Massachusetts. Chin and his mother joined him in July 2014, eventually all moving to Providence together. Chin wasted no time enrolling in CCRI, where he started by taking ESL classes part time while working on an assembly line in a nearby Massachusetts factory.

As his English grew stronger and he learned his way around the college environment, in part thanks to CCRI programs like ALP (Accelerated Learning Program) and other student services, he transitioned to a full-time course load, relying on financial aid and work study income from his job tutoring math in the Success Center.

Chin was emphatic that his experience in and out of the classroom at CCRI was more than he could have hoped for. He compared the environs of CCRI to alluvium, a type of muddy soil that is left behind by streams and is typically quite fertile, in contrast to sand, which may be more pleasing to the eye, but can grow nothing. "CCRI is not a famous community college, but it is one of the best community colleges in this country," he said. "I dare to say that coming here changed my life."

The transition to a new country and a new culture was undeniably hard, Chin said. But at every turn, his motivation to secure an education was what kept him going. "I'm almost 9,000 miles away from my country," he said. "It's not easy. But I want to be a successful man, and I believe in myself and that I can do something big in this country. I try to focus on studying every single moment, and I believe if I put in my mind and effort, nothing is impossible for me."

Chin said that students like him are often scared to pursue their educational goals because of stumbling blocks – be they related to language or finance or perceived academic ability. But he wants to give the message to his peers, loud and clear, that education is the only path out of poverty. "It's not important how smart you are," he said. "It's how hard you try to gain your success. If you come here and try hard, I think there's no reason why you couldn't succeed here."

Chin, who is expected to graduate in 2017 with an associate degree in Business Management, has goals that scale with his outsize motivation. He wants to go on to earn a bachelor's degree in business management at a four-year college, and then a master's degree in economic analysis. Ultimately, he said, he hopes to earn a doctorate in political science from Harvard University – a storied institution he's been dreaming of attending since he was that lone learner hiding behind a tree in Cambodia.

"I want to help my country," he said of his motivation to pursue business, economics and eventually political science. "We really need the human resources to lead our country. I want to become prime minister of my country, and to be a good leader, you have to be good at business, economics and politics so that you can create jobs and help solve economic crisis, especially to bring peace, harmony and dignity to your country and the world as a whole."

While his heart longs to help Cambodia, Chin said that his time in America has given him a second home, and he hopes to also work in the United States government if the opportunity arises. "America has helped me a lot, too," he said. "Since I benefit from this country, I want to give back to this country."

Chin has much to be proud of. He's well on the way to becoming the successful, educated man he always dreamed he could be. But he's not content to rest on his laurels, or to stop striving to be better or to make his world a better place. "When you move forward from one step to another, don't be too proud. You can be happy, and you can be excited. But keep on going. Be humbled, be patient, be respectful to everybody and keep learning," he said. "I believe learning is a never-ending process.

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Last Updated: 11/28/18