San José City College student, Nghi Ung, immigrated to the United States from Vietnam with her family when she was around twelve years old. She had a very hard childhood in Vietnam. But moving to the U.S. was the first step that began to turn things around for her and her family.
After going to high school in San José, she decided to go to City College, but wasn’t sure what she wanted to study. At the same time, she was working through depression and grief from her difficult childhood. She met some incredible and caring people who helped her along the way. While there were many ups and downs, her persistence to continue learning about herself while in college has shown her strength and her tenacity to keep moving forward.
For City College’s 100 years of serving students, we had the opportunity to talk with Nghi and how the people she met at City College helped change her life for the better.
My family is Chinese, but I was born in Vietnam where I lived with my parents and my three siblings. I have always been very truthful and optimistic, even though I never felt that I belonged. I always did what I thought was the right thing. As kids, we were taught to obey without questioning and to show respect to our elders or we would receive punishment. Therefore, I learned to suppress what I wanted and endure it. I did my best to do chores and take care of my siblings, hoping it would improve the negative family environment.
I didn’t have any friends growing up, because I helped my mom with chores and taking care of my younger siblings. When I was twelve years old, my family and I moved to the United States. That’s when things started to get better. About a year and a half later, when I was thirteen, we moved to San José. I started having a few friends for the first time. After high school, I was planning to go to DeAnza, and a best friend of mine said she was going to San José City College and I should go with her. It was closer to where I lived and not as competitive. That’s when I decided to go to City College, which has been a great decision.
My depression and suicidal thoughts had been building up since I was a child due to countless negative events that all added up in my life. I gained my heaviest weight really fast that made me extremely exhausted. In the end, I just slept all day and night. It got to the point where I didn’t feel hungry. That was how I lost weight. While I’m glad I lost weight, it wasn’t a good situation. I knew I couldn’t live like that and decided to start working out. I got into a routine where I was working out a lot every day. I felt amazing. Things started turning around. I was able to take 16 to 19 units each semester and made all A’s! I was really strong and positive.
After one particularly bad night when my dad got really mad, I got up the courage to go for a check-up with a doctor, Toni Moos, at the school clinic. She recommended I contact a social worker. She told me it would be okay because my family would just get a warning and we wouldn’t be separated. That’s when things really changed. When the social worker came to interview all of us, my mom was shaking terribly because she was so afraid, not knowing the social worker was there to help. But after that, my dad stopped his old behaviors. That’s when the whole family cut off the chain and found our freedom.
One day in an English class, the instructor brought in a motivational speaker, Julinda LeDee, who works at the college. I realized it was the first time I ever heard a motivational speech. When she finished and walked out the class, I thought I would lose her. So, I ran out and found her office and we started talking. I asked her a lot of questions about different kinds of relationships, with myself, family, friend, and my partner. I never had an adult or role model to learn from or talk to before. I shared my story about my boyfriend. I never had a boyfriend before. I didn’t know how to balance our relationship. The only way I knew how to show love was to give my time, attention, effort, and whatever I had to the one I loved.
She explained what he was doing was guilt tripping me so he could control, gaslight, and manipulate me to get what he wanted. There were many times I questioned things about my relationship with my boyfriend and he always blamed my depression saying it caused me to overthink. Since I grew up with many toxic behaviors in a toxic environment, I didn’t know what was normal.
Even in the media that I grew up watching, women always became timid once they had a boyfriend. I questioned many adults about this, but the answers were always the same, ‘that’s how things are supposed to be.’ I never understood, but I stopped asking because I realized they didn’t know either.
Julinda helped me connect the dots. I kept talking with Julinda about many things because her wise and open-minded point of view was what I needed. I never had anyone who was so understanding, patient, and respectful, and who actually took me seriously for an entire conversation. With all the abuse I went through, I was afraid of breaking up with my boyfriend, but Julinda with her wise advice gave me the courage to break up with him. After I did, I felt so relieved for getting myself out of that situation.
Julinda suggested I join her Poetry Club. There were Open Mic events of public speaking and poetry readings. She made me the vice president of the club and asked me to read pieces for Open Mic. I really enjoyed it. I started joining other clubs like the International Club and Japanese club, Nihon-kai. That’s when I started meeting a lot of people and making a lot of new and good friends.
As I met more people, I got to know more about different programs to join. I learned about Cultivamos Excelencia Research Scholars from counselors Valentín García and Julio Flores. From there I met an amazing, challenging English professor, Janice Sapigao, who was extremely encouraging and supportive, and helped students to realize they could do more than they thought they could.
From the Cultivamos Excelencia program, I learned about the Metas program and met Program Specialist Claudia Amador Barajas who taught me so much and encouraged me to keep moving forward. Counselors Lezra Chenportillo and Carol Vasquez were amazingly patient in helping me through the transfer process. And as a member of the EOP&S program, I met Counselor Thuy Cao who has been very kind and patience and who I trusted to help support my younger siblings which she has.
After starting City College and after my family life improved, I have been able to start my life and actually experience the world around me. I’m just grateful I met Julinda. A lot of things changed for me and my life because I met her.
When I first came to City College, I didn’t want to choose a major and limit myself. I loved learning about everything and couldn’t decide. I felt very passionate about not restricting myself to just one subject. My decision not to choose delayed me from graduating and moving forward for a long time. While I got a liberal arts degree, I didn’t know what to do with that. I almost joined the Navy with a friend which I’m so glad I didn’t, because I knew it wasn’t a good choice for me.
Because I was lacking in life experiences from my childhood, I understood I had to go through that before I could move forward in school. It just delayed me, but I’m moving forward now. I am graduating from City College this spring. I recently bought a car because I have two jobs in addition to going to college. It really helps. It’s been stressful to have two jobs and school, but I think I can handle it. I’m working out again which really keeps me from getting depressed. I have my own room now, so I was able to set up a small gym there.
I see it as life will always test you. The first time was me dealing with myself, how to view and treat myself whenever I went through depression. After many nights of crying myself to sleep, I broke through it by journaling, selfcare, and working out. My boyfriend was my second test, and I learned to break through that by having the courage to stand my ground and break up with him. My current test is dealing with working two jobs and graduating college. I think I’ll be able to handle it. I have learned I need to be in the moment and note what’s going on when it happens.
I think it’s important for people to realize that things get better. I had suicidal thoughts until I was 23 or 24. It takes a long time. I think my generation has a lot of people who think about suicide. I have others in my family who are that depressed, including a family member who recovered from an attempt and is now doing really well. I would tell anyone thinking about it to be patient with yourself and stay strong. You may feel trapped, like you have no way out, but talk to someone. Reach out to get help and know you’ll find your way through it.
Being in the U.S. and at City College has been eye opening for me, because when I started City College, I saw how diverse it was with so many different Asian communities. I even met a lady who was 50 something and just starting to go to school. It amazed me. To see how driven she was to go to college motivated me.
I want to focus on myself now, get my degree and see what happens from there. I have good friends I can count on, and I am happy I’m so close to graduating and transferring. City College has been a great experience for me. Everyone is so nice and friendly there. I feel so lucky to have been able to meet so many great people, especially Julinda who really helped me. City College has helped me grow a lot.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, you are not alone. Help is available. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with someone online. En Español a 888-273-8255. Deaf or Hard of Hearing, call 711 for TTY, then 1-800-273-8255.
San José City College offers Mental Health Counseling and access to local health services.