Kevin Tran’s parents, who fled Vietnam, wanted job security for their only child in America. But he showed interest in becoming an environmental conservationist, not the doctor or lawyer his parents expected him to be.
Williamson’s Horticulture program gave Kevin the opportunity to pursue his passion with self-assuredness and freedom from the pain and pressures that come from being a first-generation American and growing up a minority in a low-income urban neighborhood.
Before coming to Williamson, Kevin was a student at Temple University, majoring in environmental science. The major seemed natural for a teen that was active in environmental education.
John Heinz Refuge near the Philadelphia Airport was one of his sanctuaries growing up. “It was away from all the city life, away from all my worries. I could sit back and relax, and ponder my thoughts.” As he got older, he was excited to pass on this message to other kids in urban areas.
In high school, he joined the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a Community program that provides opportunities for high school youth to connect with the outdoors. One summer he created new trails for cyclists in Wissahickon Valley Park, and the next summer taught younger kids about conservation.
“There’s really nothing better than seeing little children smile. I love seeing them doing random things like testing water quality or bird-watching on the Refuge.”
Kevin’s own childhood didn’t allow for many smiles or laughter. His father, for ten years, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He met his mother, a refugee, in the U.S. and they settled in South Philadelphia. They worked hard for subsistence wages in a neon light factory and another plant that made school supplies. In their Vietnamese community, there were no children around who were Kevin’s age or ethnicity. He became delinquent, “stealing anything I could fit in my pockets.” A babysitter believed Kevin needed structure and guidance. She recommended that his parents take him to the Mormon Church, which he attended from elementary to high school. He also participated in Boy Scouts.
He credits both experiences for changing his behavior and teaching him valuable life lessons. He says he dealt with racism in both situations. “It’s just something that happens. But I didn’t let it slay or affect the experience I had with the church or the boy scouts.”
He developed a thick skin from his early life experiences, Kevin says. “I learned not to get emotional about it.” To this day, he still doesn’t show his emotions, says Shop Director David Day. Despite Williamson’s small, family-like campus, where Mr. Day knows Kevin feels safe and supported he recognizes that Kevin’s “don’t-mess-with-me” demeanor is a carry over from growing up in a rough neighborhood.
While attending Temple University, Kevin missed a hands-on learning experience. Also, his parents couldn’t afford to pay the tuition. Scholarships and financial aid covered only less than half of what he needed, and he was looking ahead at crushing student loan debt. “I felt like I was paying a lot of money for just sitting in classes and not really being able to apply anything I was learning.”
Kevin decided to take a year off, and headed down to Maryland to the Patuxent Research Wildlife Refuge, to work as a seasonal intern. The next year would be transformational for Kevin. He apprenticed with experts in the field of conservation, while living with the other interns who advised him on his future and his career. “I was 19 and living away from home for the first time. They had finished college; some had gotten their Master’s. I had a lot of talks with them.” Feeling unsure about whether he would return to Temple, Kevin listened to his housemates and other refuge staff, who suggested he go to a trade school.
He decided to apply to Williamson, a school he had heard about in high school. He also had to reconcile with his parents who disagreed with the direction he was taking academically. Kevin told them that going to school to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer was too expensive and took too many years.
“My parents didn’t get to finish high school so they didn’t understand the stresses I had.”
Seeing Kevin on his own for a while made his parents understand that he could take care of himself. After that, Kevin says, his parents learned to communicate better with him and more often.
He also made the discovery that he wasn’t an only child. He learned he had a half-sister living in Virginia with five children. Kevin reached out to her and they connected. “She’s one of the closest people I have now.”
After an event-filled two years, Kevin was accepted to Williamson, as an older student. “They are more mature, more focused, a little more serious. They know what they want,” says Mr. Day.
And knowing what it takes to excel in the field of environmental conservation, Kevin plans to pursue a career as an Environmental Engineer after graduation.
“I’m going to just lay it all out there and keep my head up.”
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