Phong Dang is not unlike many Cal Poly students in that he doesn’t like to talk in class. But with a 3.779 GPA, it’s not because he doesn’t know the answer.
Dang, 24, was the 2009 California Polytechnic State University recipient of the William Randolph Hearst California State University (CSU) Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement. The award and a $3,000 scholarship is given to one student from each CSU campus. Applicants must have a minimum GPA of 3.0; demonstrate financial need, commitment to community service and ability to overcome adversity; and be enrolled full-time for the 2009-10 academic year.
Dang is a finance senior and economics minor from the Orfalea College of Business.
“My family wanted me to study to be a pharmacist, but I just love business,” he said. “I think I like to do business because I want to have the knowledge and education to take risks and get good results.”
His grandfather sponsored Dang, his dad and two brothers, Phu, 22, and Phuc, 20, to come to the U.S. from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam in 2005. His mom couldn’t come for family and business reasons, but they hope to bring her here in the next two years. His dad sends money to her from Houston, Texas, where he and Dang’s brothers have lived since 2006.
Phu Dang said he admires his brother for wanting to help people.
“When he grows up, maybe he wants to be a rich man. Rich in money and rich in love also. He wants to have much money to help himself, his family and the poor people,” Phu said in an e-mail.
Dang may not talk much or be social, Phu said, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know anything. The three brothers studied math in Vietnam, so they have an advantage over other students, he said, but they still study hard because there is more to learn. Dang said he studies more than 40 hours a week.
“The things that members of my family want him to do is he try to study by his best, try to become a successful person, and the one who can bring happiness to family and everybody surround him,” Phu said.
Mathematics professor John Martin taught Phong in a precalculus class when he began studying at Santa Rosa Junior College in fall 2005. Though it has been a few years and he’s had hundreds of students since then, he remembers Dang because his English wasn’t good, but his math was excellent, Martin said.
Dang was very quiet in class, not answering or asking questions, he said. And unlike other students who attend office hours hoping to pry answers from their professors, Dang came to Martin to have words clarified. It was unusual, Martin said, because he wanted to do the work himself.
“He was a very quiet student,” he said. “But I could tell as soon as I saw the work that he understood the mathematics.”
Dang finished second in Martin’s class, which the professor said is a remarkable achievement for someone with a language barrier. Martin even tried to convince him to get a mathematics degree and said he’d love to Dang come back to the junior college.
“He was hardworking, dependable, all those things faculty love in students,” he said.
In 2008, Dang was admitted to University of California, San Diego and UC Santa Barbara but chose Cal Poly for its finance major, small class sizes and the friendly small-town community vibe. He plans to head to the East Coast to get his master’s and then he wants to work for a financial firm.
While he currently plans to return to work in Vietnam in about 10 years, he said his family thinks he’ll stay here.
“Nothing is perfect, 100 percent sure. I think I will go back, but not for sure,” he said.
Benita Yannine Robledo-Espinoza was the 2008 Cal Poly recipient. According to her profile on the CSU Trustees’ Award Web site, she was raised by her single mother, an immigrant who worked as a waitress to support her three children. When her mother’s business failed, her family stayed at a homeless shelter throughout her eighth-grade school year. Robledo-Espinoza made honor-roll throughout her academic career and was the first of her family to attend college. Like Dang, she studied business and planned to work for an accounting firm after graduation.
Even with a high GPA, an award and a $3,000 scholarship, Dang doesn’t boast about his accomplishments.
“I think I’m just lucky because there are other students who are better than me, smarter than me,” Dang said.