Learning in the U.S.A.


The Mirror

Chinbo Chong’s stress was relieved with the arrival of an envelope in the mail.

A senior at Thomas Jefferson High School, Chong and her family weren’t sure how they would pay for her to go to college. Her dream school, University of California-Berkeley, seemed out of the question.

Now Chong, who was born in Seoul, South Korea and came to the United States 10 years ago, is planning to study political science and international relations as a Gates Milleniium Scholar. She was selected for the program created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to send ethnic minorities to college.

Chong graduates from high school on Thursday.

Her family came to the U.S. for her father’s health, Chong said. He is now a pastor at Cornerstone Bible Church, where Chong plays the piano and violin.

With a 3.96 grade point average, Chong took the AP calculus test and all six International Baccalaureate exams. When the letter arrived from the Gates Foundation, she and her mother, whom Chong says is her best friend, “danced around the house. We cried. We hugged,” Chong said. “It was a very grateful day.”

To be considered a Gates Millennium Scholar, an applicant must have a good academic record and prove they are leaders in the community.

Chong volunteered at the county’s Federal Way Public Health Center, working on a project to educate people about AIDS/HIV. She was Key Club president for a year at Jefferson, an Honor Society member and on the Northwest Asian Weekly Student Board.

Chong has dreams of becoming politically active and getting elected. She wants to represent Americans, but especially Asian-Americans.

She wants to attend UC-Berkeley because of its history with the Free Speech movement and the diversity of the student population.

Her family, which includes an older sister and younger brother, are supportive of Chong and her aspirations, especially her mother.

“No one can give the best advice,” Chong said.

Or deliver relief in an envelope to their daughter.


Sucheng and Suleng Soeung have had a busy three years.

The sisters, who graduated Monday from Federal Way High School, have been members of the school’s swim team and the golf team. Sucheng helps students prepare for the state assessment exam (WASL), and both are, or have been, members of DECA, FBLA, Key Club, Math Team, Honor Society and the Cambodian Student Association at Highline Community College, where Sucheng is the treasurer.

They have perfect 4.0 grade point averages and plan to attend Northwest colleges.

Did we mention Sucheng and Suleng have only been in the United States for three years?

The reward for both is being Gates Millenium Scholars. Any costs the Soeungs and their parents cannot meet for the sisters to attend college, the Gates Foundation covers the bills.

Sucheng and Suleng aren’t twins. Although people do confuse them at times. Suleng, 19, is the elder sister by a year. They were in a new school in a new country, and the young women had only each other to rely on. Their mother decided they should be together.

They moved from Cambodia to the U.S. because of their father’s job. He had been in the states for a while before his daughters and wife came to the country. Their parents are supportive but do not interfere with their daughters’ education, Sucheng said. As long as the grades on the report card are good, their parents are happy, she said.

While multilingual, Sucheng and Suleng’s grasp of English was limited when they arrived. They spent the first year taking beginning English classes and often spent hours after class practicing with their teacher.

Instructor Carla Boone remembered them sitting in the back of a classroom alternating between English and Cambodian as she presented a lesson for one unit. Their sophomore year, Suleng and Sucheng had the same six classes. As seniors, they have two classes together.

Today, the Soeungs speak English with remarkable fluency and aren’t shy.

Sometimes they switch to Cambodian for privacy.

Now they are taking traditional English courses along with advanced classes in math. They took the Advanced Placement calculus and statistics exams and depending on how high they score could have some of their college requirements waived.

Compared to the Cambodian education system they knew, the American system is better, they say. Teachers spend more time with their students and are willing to stay after class answering questions. While Cambodian teachers tow a harder line when it comes to discipline, Suleng said the way students learn in Cambodia, it is easy for them to forget what they’ve been taught.

Suleng and Sucheng, who don’t have other siblings, grew up learning Chinese in their home because their grandparents were Chinese immigrants to Cambodia. As they grew up, Cambodia’s government only allowed children to learn Cambodian in schools. If you learned another language at home, it stayed at home and you didn’t tell your neighbors, the young women said.

When they started going to school as children, the Soeungs learned Cambodian. Sucheng also learned Thai and speaks a Chinese dialect spoken in a southern city that does business with Hong Kong.

Of all the languages, they say English was the most difficult to learn. They are nervous about college and the expectations of writing large papers.

When Federal Way High teacher David Ditlefsen nominated them for the Gates Millennium Scholarship, they were hoping just one of them would be selected. Now they are thinking more about college.

Suleng plans to attend Seattle University and is deliberating between optometry and accounting.

Sucheng intends to go to the University of Washington. She wants to study international business and is already considering graduate school.

Both plan to start their own businesses after graduating.

“They’re not afraid of anything,” Boone said.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565,

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