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Business grad hopes to start nonprofit to encourage self-awareness in children

May 17, 2016

Thao Dang Thao Dang

Thao Dang didn't succeed the first time she tried to go to college. Nor did she get very far on her second attempt. But the third time? That was the charm.

"I gave myself an ultimatum," said the 31-year-old General Business major. "I said, 'This is it. You're 28 years old. You're going to make it, or you're not.' That really changed me. I stayed focused."

And Dang didn't just skate by, either. Despite working and caring for her two children, the Cranston resident is set to graduate from CCRI with a 3.75 GPA, membership in Phi Theta Kappa and Kappa Beta Delta, and a very bright future ahead of her.

"I now believe anything is possible," she said. "If opportunities don't come knocking – build a door."

Whether she realized it or not, Dang actually had started framing out that door earlier on in her life, when she handled a significant transition after her family relocated to Philadelphia from Saigon, Vietnam, when she was just 10 years old. Her father had arrived in the country when her mother was still pregnant with Dang; the two had never met.

"It was strange," she said of starting a new life in a strange place with a different family structure. "I was already my own person at 10, and he was always working, so I never got a chance to get to know him."

While Dang's father was establishing the family's salon business, she was looking for a foothold in school. Because she didn't speak English when she arrived, she spent most of her time in English as a second language classes, away from her friends. The only class she was able to keep up with on a regular basis was math.

"It's like I wanted to talk, but I couldn't," said Dang, who is now not only fluent, but excels at communication. "I still feel like I'm not comfortable: there's slang and idiom. There's always something new to learn."

That eagerness to learn has kept Dang coming back to the classroom even when the odds were stacked against her. Trying to find her passion, she first went to a community college in Chicago for nursing, but decided it wasn't for her. A second attempt found her moving away from home for the first time and beginning fashion school. But the debt that was quickly accruing and the slim chances of success in the fashion industry made her pull out of that school, too.

On her own and in charge of her life for the first time, Dang took some time to figure out what it was she wanted. "My whole life was all working at the salon," she said. She continued to work in salons to support herself and her small family; her son, Mason, 7, was born just before she moved to Rhode Island. "But I just felt it wasn't for me. Even though I'm good at it, I needed a challenge. I wanted to think creatively. So that's why I decided to go back to school and major in business."

Dang said it was hard for her to give higher education a third shot. Despite the confidence that seems to radiate from her, she struggles with self-doubt. But it was her children – first Mason and then her daughter, Riley, 3 – who gave her the push she needed to keep going, even when she doubted that she could.

"They are my rock," she said. "I just want to give them everything in this world if I can."

Dang stuck to a rigorous schedule, going to bed with the kids at 8 p.m. and waking up at 3 a.m. and studying until class at 9 a.m. She credited her friends, faculty and the CCRI staff with helping her succeed – whether it was giving her extra help during office hours, giving her encouragement when she needed it, or just giving her a place to learn and grow.

During her last year at the college, and with strong family support, she used the extra time to start networking and building leadership skills through DECA, the business club. "That just changed me," she said. "By engaging in clubs, I gained confidence. I've been reaching out into the community. I volunteered at TEDxProvidence. And I was able to complete an honors project on emotional intelligence."

That project helped her find what she eventually hopes to be her career focus. First, learning about emotional intelligence – including how to become more self-aware, how to talk to people and how to regulate emotions – gave her the skills to overcome some of her own self-doubt. She said she's made it a point to pass the benefits of these skills on to others, encouraging her peers and engaging in her community.

Dang was active in the larger CCRI community, having been elected chapter president of DECA and senator in Student Government. Ultimately, Dang said, she wants to start a nonprofit that will provide an afterschool program for children aged 7 and older that promotes self-development. "It's a perfect age range for kids to learn the necessary skills of emotional intelligence, leadership, identity and other life skills," she said.

"I feel like if I had that awareness when I was little, I would be different. I wouldn't doubt myself as much. And if we all believe in ourselves, and credit ourselves enough, nothing is impossible," she said.

To further pursue that goal, Dang is taking a year off between earning her associate degree and pursuing her bachelor's degree in the humanities. She plans on spending that time networking and volunteering with organizations such as Meeting Street School, Junior Achievement and Serve Rhode Island. "I want to see what's missing, and what's out there," she said.

Now at the end of her time at CCRI, Dang is unquestionably ready to open that door she started building so long ago.

"Fear is just a feeling. Never let fear stand in your way of success," she said. "My success was a team effort. I didn't do it alone; no one could. The relationships I built here are like family. Not only did CCRI provide me with a strong foundation in business, CCRI gave me hope. I now believe that with dedication, anything can be possible."

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Last Updated: 8/25/16