1st Year Reflection

I’ve completed my first year at the University of Southern California! Here are some personal lessons:

  1. Taking up (academic, physical, social) space is difficult… especially if you feel like it’s not your space. That being said, taking up space is necessary.
  2. Wear sunscreen everyday.
  3. Home is where the phở is!

Spring Break 2019

I know it’s been a long time!

Since moving in, I feel like I’ve changed a lot, but that’s something I’ll touch on in a later freshman reflection post. I’m in the process of making a video for freshman year to compensate for the FOMO I left everyone with.

Recently I went on Spring Break, and as much as I wanted to go home to Boston, I had the privilege and opportunity to go to Kanab, Utah on an alternative spring break program hosted by McCarthy Honors Residential College. There were 10 of us total selected from McCarthy. Some of us were vegan/vegetarians or well-informed about animal rights issues, while some were not. We are an incredibly diverse group, speaking Spanish, Vietnamese, Farsi, Telugu, French, Mandarin, Pashto, Gujarati, and German, hailing from all over the U.S. with roots all over the world. We had majors ranging from Chemical Engineering to Architecture to Geo Design to Business Administration to East Asian Studies. I really appreciated this refreshing and concentrated diversity.

We spent the week as volunteers at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, assisting in tasks from cleaning to socializing animals to weeding. Though these services may seem unimpressive and minute, we were educated to realize that our work had immense value in increasing the animals’ quality of life– and that was all we really wanted to achieve as volunteers.

I mentioned before that “we were educated to realize” our impact. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary did an incredible job showing us that our services were not only appreciated, but necessary in the short and long term. For example, we dedicated one afternoon to weeding and deep cleaning a vacant run (run = temporary holding unit for lost/abandoned animals) in Fredonia, AZ. This task was crucial to the well being of the animals that would temporarily inhabit the run, and helped to maintain amiable relations between Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and the town of Fredonia, AZ. We were informed that the run was infrequently maintained, as the town of Fredonia, AZ had allowed Best Friends to build the facility on their property, despite having no obligation to, in order to provide interim housing for the town’s lost/abandoned animals.

Other than the manual and administrative tasks, education was an exceptional part of our experience. Room was made in our schedules to attend workshops and lectures about No Kill and Trap-Neuter-Release initiatives, as well as a lecture about the Science of Animal Happiness by Dr. Frank McMillan. As volunteers merely cleaning or learning, we wouldn’t have had any idea about the value of what we were doing without the context that Best Friends provided. Best Friends outreach representatives, Deb and Brittany, did a wonderful job providing context for every task that was assigned, answering all our questions (easy or difficult), and even putting in the effort to ask us about our passions, careers, and hometowns.

Outside of our time at the sanctuary, the 10 of us and our 2 team leads embarked on excursions to Zion, Bryce, and Coral Pink Sand Dunes National Parks. Every night, we cooked a plant based meal together — family style. After dinner and chores, we all played card games, watched movies, looked up our birth charts and entertained astrological assumptions or did Chemistry/Architecture/Business homework into the depths of the night (sometimes until early morning).


There is no way that this short word vomit is eloquent, detailed, nor emotional enough to communicate the pride we all have in the work that we did nor the impact that the people and animals of Best Friends has made on the 12 of us — so I will sum things up in three lessons and a video:

  1. Good hiking boots go a long way.
  2. Adopt, don’t shop!
  3. You don’t need to change the world, just a world.

Please watch in HD if possible! Video courtesy of Jose B.

Moving In (And Out)

I start school soon at the University of Southern California. I moved in 2 days ago. The institution flooded me with a myriad of emails, letters, merchandise, and invitations throughout the summer. The frequency of these interactions increased as Aug. 13 (my move-in date) neared, but my mind was always elsewhere.

It must be a talent to be able to remain this neutral and distracted before and after moving across the country. Instead of RSVP’ing to USC meet-ups in Boston this summer and dorm decorating the first day, I was thinking about a tiny furry yak tent in Tibet.


I’ve moved in to USC, but I’m reminded that I’ve moved in to places before. I’ve moved in to this home in the Tibetan Plains.

Pictured are my brothers, my sister, me, a fellow student, and our moms.

The boys lead me around the plains that first day, pointing at things and naming them in Tibetan, then giggling furiously as I pronounced the same words wrong. For welcoming me so eagerly and extinguishing my anxiety, they quickly found a space in my heart.

My sister was the one that could communicate with me most effectively, knowing bits and pieces of Chinese and English. We exchanged vocabulary in English, Chinese, and Tibetan, blowing through pages of our notebooks.

My mom immediately brought out their best traditional Tibetan clothes while my dad generously took photos. As one thing lead to another these (totally not staged) pictures came to be:


Now as I move in to college, I think about these children.

Specifically my brother.

The oldest brother (on the left), roughly 7 at that time, loved lollipops. Whenever I had the time to walk to the local convenient store (it was a tent) or hitchhike a ride into town, I would buy him a lollipop. He would then share it with his younger brother (on the right).

One day the oldest brother came home with a freshly shaven head. It was rare for children to leave the home and land, as they are usually tending to the cattle and sheep. I tried to convey to him to the best of my ability that I liked his haircut. He was enjoying a lollipop and smiling bashfully.

I asked who had given him the lollipop, as I am the normal supplier. To my bewilderment, it was his father.

My brother was later absent for the remainder of my homestay. His family, by their religious customs and nomadic tradition, sent him away to become a monk. I didn’t know at the time, but his father gave him that lollipop as a small compensation for the haircut. The haircut representing a decision that made me question so many of my experiences, morals, and beliefs. I thought of it as a bandaid on a broken arm.

While I was not and still am not in any place to ask this, I am left wondering if anyone ever asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. I wonder if he had known that day. If he would still choose to smile so brilliantly.  I wonder how he is doing now.

The memories of my time in the Tibetan Plains with a nomadic family, of my brother, are heavy on my heart today. That weight will be used as strength and ambition in my next 4 years at the University of Southern California.

I am grateful for the privileges and opportunities I have had. Namely the privilege and opportunities to move in and out of places.

I am grateful to have been asked “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

18 Off A Gap Year: White

Honestly, re-entering the country has not been a fluid transition. From April 14th, the day my Global Citizen year ended, to today, I have been working to mend that gap between countries — mentally, physically, culturally, and (of course) financially.

Yesterday, June 7th, 2018, was the day I officially became an official Alumna by GCY protocol. I thought I would share some peculiar and silly in-between moments I had in my time re-adjusting back to the life I led before embarking on my year abroad.

The streets of Boston are not cobblestone. I have become accustomed to the beautiful, antique cobblestone streets of Cuenca. The GAD Municpal de Cuenca puts a lot of effort into maintaining these prided roads (to fruition, as Cuenca was deemed “Best Destination for Short Vacations in South America” at the World Travel Awards (WTA) ceremony in 2017). I love Boston, but potholes and highways just don’t compare.

The Charles is massive. Cuenca is known for its four rivers (the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara rivers). They are magical. They are also a fraction of the size of the Charles.

Hot water?? From the sink?? Hot water is a luxury for showers, but for your everyday hand washing? Heavenly.

(Most of) My friends don’t speak Spanish. Nor do they bump Maluma/Ozuna/J Balvin/Bad Bunny/REGGAETON :(!! Rest assured. They are out there. I will find them, my Spanish speaking, Reggaeton blasting champs.

Foooooood :’) but also fooood :,( Oh, how I’ve missed sashimi and lasagna and jasmine rice and pho and coxinha and burritos! But a whole meal costs $10+ in the U.S!

My Fellows are far. People that used to live an hour by bus away now live an hour by plane away. Friends I saw everyday are now across the country, across the globe. We used to complain about living too damn far away from each other, but I’d take a bus ride over an ocean any day.

What now? For weeks after I left Ecuador and came home, this was the haunting question. What now? It was agonizing to think about a reality where I was not in my small home in Ricaurte, waking up everyday to new adventures and challenges. My goal then was to live and enjoy, to thrive. What now?

Now I am 18 off a gap year. I’ve spent countless nights trying to immortalize every birthday, every joke, every family member, every volleyball game into writing, paintings, playlists — but I’ve realized that I will never be there, be that version of me, again.

And that’s ok. Because I was there. I was me. I did that.

Ecuador was red, yellow, and orange. It was blue and green. It was pink. Now it’s time to tuck this finished piece of my life into my collection. And my canvas is white again.

18 On A Gap Year: Pink

Pink is the color of love. Past loves and new loves, soft love and hard loves. All of which I experienced in these 8 months.


Side note/interesting fact: My mom calls these flowers Hoa Giấy  or “paper flowers.” These flowers are abundant on the coast of Ecuador, and reminded me of my home country and of my mom.


There are lot of ways to say “I love you,” literally and non-verbally. I grew up in Vietnam and the U.S., so I’ve learned how to be loved in the ways American friends and Vietnamese parents know how to love. Let me share with you the ways I was told I was loved and the times I felt cared for in Ecuador by friends, family, and coworkers.

  1. ¿Estas triste? – “Are you sad?”
  2. ¿Quiere comer? – “Do you want to eat?” The answer is yes. Every time.
  3. ¡Hola Maestra/ Profe. Phuong! – It was empowering to be called a teacher/professor. Also to have crowds of children swarm you and ask for your autograph.
  4. ¡Baja a comer! – “Come down and eat!”
  5. ¿Quiere ir en las bicicletas conmigo? – “Do you want to go on the bikes with me?” This particular invitation was significant to me, at that time and now still. My second oldest sister, Andrea, asked me this in my first months in Ecuador. It helped me adapt a little. Here was something I knew and could apply to a new environment to give myself a sense of familiarity and control.
  6. The use of usted.  – My family always addressed me in the second person formally, using the verb endings for usted. This was a sign of respect, as I noticed they only used usted when talking to our host mom or dad in the family.
  7. ¿A donde se va? / ¿Se va? – “Where are you going? / You are going?”
  8. Usted es muy inteligente. – “You are very smart.”
  9. ¿Les extrana sus padres? – “You miss your parents?”
  10. ¡No te vas! – “Don’t go!” My extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins) gave me warm hugs and said this to me during our last Sunday Family Volleyball Game. My 8-year-old nephew said these words to me in a fit of tears the night before I left.
  11. ¿Quiere ir a jugar basket/volley? – “Do you want to go play basketball/volleyball?”
  12. Invitations – I was so thankful whenever I was asked to go places. My family’s openness paired with my eagerness to participate led me to late-night basketball games with the neighborhood kids, family parties that ended at 3:00 AM, many hours dancing in heels, volleyball games played with very hard soccer balls, and trips to Cuenca on miscellaneous errands.
  13. ¿Quiere mas (para comer)? – “Do you want more (to eat)?” Again, a very important question.
  14. ¿Esta llena? – “Are you full?”
  15. ¿Como le fue? – “How did it go?”
  16. ¿Esta con gripe? / ¿Esta enferma? – “Are you sick?” Unfortunately my response to these questions was too frequently, “yes.”
  17.  “I can take you to the doctor.” – My Team Leader, Diana, AKA my interim mom for these past 8 months saved my life on multiple occasions. Mentally and physically.
  18. House Keys – The day my family gave me my own copy of the keys to the house, I knew I had a home.
  19. Making my bed – I had never made my bed in my life. I know. So when I first came to my new home, someone made my bed everyday. I would rush out of the house in a tornado of wrinkly clothes and tangled hair, backpack and papers flying everywhere, and when I came home from work or school that day, my bed would be neatly made with the door of my room open. It was a silent declaration of house rules and a sort of initiation. I started making my bed everyday and leaving the door open whenever I left the house.
  20. Cuidase. – “Take care of yourself.”
  21. Tome un asiento. – “Take a seat.” This phrase was a relief on those long nights I wore heels.
  22. Cuidado. – “Careful.”
  23. A Buddhist in a very Catholic country – One of the first questions I was asked was if I was Catholic. I’m not. I went to church with my family a couple of times for weddings and my nephew’s baptism. I was never pressured to go to church with my family, and I was never guilted nor ostracized for not going.
  24. Descanse. – “Rest.”
  25. “Do you have parasites too?” – This phrase was thrown around from fellow to other fellows often, especially whenever anyone had a mild stomach ache. It’s less frightening when your friends are also on the same sinking ship. Misery loves company!
  26. Mija… – This is an endearing way to address a young girl, similar to daughter. My supervisor called me “mija” on my first day of work. I remember standing there trying to figure out how to tell her my name is Phuong, not Mija. 
  27. ¿Tiene plata? – “Do you have money (to go out)?”
  28. Si quiere. – “If you want.” This phrase was key to my sanity. It reminded me that I had the freedoms of a young adult, that I still had choices in this new environment. Feeling like I was still in control of my life and what I wanted in a foreign country and house that was not mine grounded me.
  29. Que bonita usted. – “How cute/beautiful you are.”
  30. Spanish Learning – My Spanish skills can be accredited to my family, especially the youngest sister in the family, Maria. I loved that she corrected my grammar and vocabulary.
  31. ¿Seguro? – “Are you sure?”
  32. My Lamp Quest – One day I told my sisters I wanted a reading lamp at night. We walked 20,000 steps the next day to find me a lamp.
  33. Buen viaje. – “Good travels.”
  34. “Let’s meet in Cuenca/Azogues/Sig Sig” – These invitations were from other GCY fellows and played a huge role in keeping me from just booking a flight back home during these 8 months. Speaking English and ranting about how we miss hamburgers reminded me that I was a normal teenager and that I wasn’t alone.
  35. Somos su familia. / es nuestra hermana. – “We are family. / You are our sister.”

I am grateful to have experienced love in a foreign country. These were the times Ecuador was Pink.