By the time she arrived on campus, ready to begin her college journey, Appalachian State University freshman Guin Thi had exceeded the hopes and dreams of her family. Now she is realizing her own dream, learning more about a profession that has intrigued her since childhood: architectural design. She is majoring in building sciences in Appalachian’s architectural technology and design program.
Thi’s journey began when she was 6 years old and her family traveled from their mountain home in the Dak Nong province of Vietnam to visit the bustling metropolitan city of Ho Chi Minh City. There, for the first time she saw skyscrapers and was mesmerized by the skyline view and a busy merchant scene. She was full of questions about the buildings: how they were constructed, how long it took to build them, who was involved in making them and how the designs for them came to be.
Over the years, she remained curious about the decisions that influenced the shapes of commercial buildings as well as residential communities. Her curiosity lingered when her family immigrated to the U.S., where she observed city landscapes that far differed from her native country.
Her earliest memory of an American city is of El Monte, California, located near Los Angeles. Thereafter, her family relocated a number of times in search of a place where they felt comfortable and where the adults could find suitable employment.
“It was a difficult decision [relocating to the U.S]. We would experience a better life here but we had to leave our grandparents and three older siblings behind,” Thi said.
She describes working hard to overcome many hardships and difficulties, complicated by having to rapidly learn a new language. “Communicating with others was difficult because of the language barrier,” she said.
“We kept on moving, changing locations,” Thi said. “At some point it affected my education, ability to learn and adapt to new environments. There were times I studied with a tutor. I had to try again and again with some [assignments]. Sometimes, I wanted to give up but I kept trying because I wanted to learn.”
By the time she was a middle school student, the family had settled in North Carolina. They lived a short time in Greensboro before moving to Charlotte, where her sister found a job to support the family. Despite the uncertainties that persisted with frequent relocations and school changes, she was determined to improve as a student. West Charlotte High School was the second high school she attended but the place where she blossomed, with the help of her teachers, counselors and tennis coach.
Thi established an important social network in Charlotte. She volunteered for school and church events, and sang in the church choir. She participated in community organizations such as the Southeast Asian Coalition and the Bunong Indigenous Community Association. As a youth mentor, she encouraged other young people to learn about their heritage.
Thi also developed good study habits, and excelled academically. For the first time, she began considering college as an option after high school. “I never thought I would go to college. I figured I would be like my brother, get a job,” Thi said.
But with some coaxing from a social worker and her high school guidance counselor, she began attending college preparatory workshops, and took advantage of college fairs and opportunities to meet university recruiters who visited her high school.
Thi applied to five institutions in the University of North Carolina system and began evaluating her options. She won a Gates Millennium Scholarship and moved one large step closer to enrolling and earning a college degree. Although Thi said her parents did not fully understand the process of college enrollment and selecting a major, this financial assistance made it possible, and they were happy she could further her education.
An older brother drove her to Appalachian’s campus where the two were impressed by the mountain views. Thi recalled feeling a sense of comfort and familiarity with the Boone area, which reminded her and her brother of their native Dak Nong province of Vietnam. She recalls a campus tour filled with friendly people and a wealth of campus information helped her choose Appalachian.
A few days prior to the start of the fall semester, Thi was settled in her residence hall and curious about the experiences she would have as a freshman. She took the time to explore campus, becoming more familiar with the pathways and buildings where classes and recreational activities would be held.
“I really like to explore and learn new cultures. I like to meet people from different backgrounds. The more you explore the campus, the more [you broaden] your options,” Thi said.
Thi’s first semester was filled with experiences typical of many first-year students: she joined student clubs, attended her first Mountaineer football game, attended residence hall events, and enjoyed the area’s outdoor recreational opportunities. She has become very fond of Belk Library and Information Commons: its stacks, study alcoves, special collections, movies and even a place that sells snacks.
Now well into her second semester at Appalachian, Thi continues to take in her surroundings and relate them to her area of study. While she is not sure whether she would like to eventually design residential or commercial structures, she realizes the importance architectural design plays in developing the unique character and charm of both small towns and big cities. She hopes to one day design a home for her parents, and inspired by them, considers the possibility that she might make a career out of designing homes for people in need. “Their story impacts my life,” she said. “It provides me with the thought of making their dream come true.”