Kim Pham’s journey at Selkirk College almost ended soon after it began.
Arriving to the West Kootenay from bustling Ho Chi Minh City in December 2017, the Class of 2020 Selkirk College valedictorian felt like she made a mistake by choosing a rural college to start her Canadian education. She missed her family in Vietnam, was stung by the winter weather, grappled with culture shock and was surprised by the serene pace of life in Castlegar.
“For the first weeks that I started at Selkirk College, I wanted to leave,” Pham recalls. “I talked with two other Vancouver-based colleges to see if I could transfer right away. I was planning to move, but I am so glad that I made the decision to stay.”
As she overcame cold feet both literally and figuratively, Pham became a powerhouse multi-faceted leader in the hallways of the Castlegar Campus and in the community. A tireless and enthusiastic volunteer, Pham spent her two-plus years at Selkirk College maximizing involvement and taking on challenges she never thought possible.
Though the in-person Convocation 2020 ceremony and celebration scheduled for the end of April was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the graduate of the Post-Graduate Business Management Diploma Program still managed to make Selkirk College history.
“It is such an honour to be the first international student recognized as the valedictorian,” says Pham. “I am also proud to be a School of Business student and represent my classmates. I would not have achieved this without the support system that I have built since coming here in December 2017.”
Starting an International Journey
Born-and-raised in a city of nine million people, Pham’s early education was typical for children in urban Vietnam. Rising before dawn to get ready for school, classes would start at 8 a.m. and not end until 5 p.m., at which point she would head off to a tutor for three-hour sessions. Homework would be actioned until 11 p.m., sleep would finally come and then she would start over again the next morning. On most weekends, Pham would attend specialized tutoring that took up most of her Saturdays and Sundays.
Pham’s entry into post-secondary was in Ho Chi Minh City where she became the first person in her family to earn a bachelor degree. Interested in international business, she wanted to take her next educational steps in North America. Pham worked for a couple of years to save up enough money and came across Selkirk College through a recruiting agent in Vietnam.
“The recruiter wanted to make sure that I was okay with going from Ho Chi Minh City to a rural area… I wanted to give it a try,” she says.
Though she was taught primarily in English while at university in Vietnam, language was one of the main obstacles Pham needed to overcome once she arrived in Canada.
“No matter how good you think you are at English and even if you are confident that you can communicate fluently, there is still a gap,” she says. “I had to work hard and keep learning.”
An Eager Volunteer
Pham shook off her initial apprehension by jumping into student life at Selkirk College. She started with the Selkirk College Students’ Union and from there began to take on opportunities in all areas of the college. Over the last two and a half years, she has been part of the Student Ambassador team, a Cultural Assistant for Selkirk International, a member of Mental Health committee, the student representative on the Selkirk College Education Council and Board of Governors, the Business Engagement Assistant for the School of Business and was a consistent participant in most on-campus events.
“What I like most in a Canadian post-secondary learning environment is the fairness and openness. Opportunities are available for everyone, regardless their backgrounds or origins,” says Pham. “If you’d like to volunteer, people will welcome you and they are willing to teach you. By volunteering and being involved, I have learned so much and made more friends, some of whom become my extended family in Canada. The more you get involved, the more you learn and when that happens you always feel there is even more to learn.”
While holding down part-time jobs in a local fast food restaurant and then as an intern for the Skills Centre in Trail, Pham also managed to volunteer in the community for the Red Cross, Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Salvation Army.
Building an impressive resume with boundless energy and dedication, the straight-A student says she added significantly to her depth of knowledge while studying in the School of Business.
“In order to be a good leader, you need to be a good follower first,” Pham says. “Leadership, economics and entrepreneurship are my main takeaways. I learned practical concepts and skills that are valuable for my future career and academic pursuit.”
As an Intern Research Assistant at Selkirk College’s Applied Research & Innovation Centre, Pham has been applying her business knowledge and skills in multiple research projects and initiatives that address community needs within the region.
“I am grateful to work with an interdisciplinary team where I can both work on projects that match with my strengths and interests, and learn from other student and faculty researchers,” says Pham.
An Unexpected Interruption
The sudden halt to her final semester at Selkirk College due to the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult, but Pham says it provided an even greater appreciation for the rural college experience.
“I learned a lot about how people take care of each other in a rural community,” she says. “This sense of community is even more evident during COVID-19 where the situation is much different than it would be in the big city.”
Pham’s next chapter involves exploring more experiential learning opportunities through the Applied Research & Innovation Department and working towards a master’s degree after she earns enough money to get started. As she gets set to move onto the next step, Pham does have some parting valedictorian-style words of advice for the Class of 2020, starting with current and future international students.
“If there is a moment that you want to give up here, please pause and give it another chance. You will have a unique learning experience that you never imagined and won’t regret,” she says. “It wasn’t easy because I lived in a big city for my whole life and then arrived to a place that is so small and difficult culturally. You need to embrace the change and you will enjoy it. If I had a chance to choose it again, I would choose Selkirk College.”
As for all her new friends and classmates who took the journey with her over the last two plus years, Pham encourages celebration and continued dedication to lifelong learning.
“We worked really hard to get to graduation. Although there have been ups and downs along this journey, finally we made it,” says the ever-cheerful Pham. “We deserve our achievement today because together we are making a difference in the community and building a remarkable future for ourselves.”
Learn more about Selkirk College School of Business at: https://selkirk.ca/school/business
Photo Caption: Providing a voice to the Class of 2020, Kim Pham (third from right) is a student in the Selkirk College School of Business.