When Trang Ha moved to Fort Smith in 2012, she felt lost and alone. Completely blind and in a foreign country, Ha was surrounded by people speaking a language she didn’t understand.
Four years later, Ha has found a home at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith as she enters her second year at the university, where she boasts a 4.0 grade point average thanks to a strong work ethic and a caring campus community.
But her journey to becoming a 4.0 student had its fair share of challenges. Both she and her sister were born blind and raised in Binh Duong, a rural town in Vietnam, for the first 19 years of her life. Then, in 2012, Ha and her family moved to Fort Smith to be with her grandfather, who relocated to the city in 1975 and gradually saved money to fund the family’s relocation.
In America, Ha was in a foreign world. The culture shock was not seen but heard – the sounds of urban America were a far cry from rural Vietnam, not to mention that Ha was surrounded by people speaking a language she didn’t understand.
English proved to be one of Ha’s greatest frustrations in acclimating to life in America. At her classes at Southside High School, she struggled. Homework assignments that took a traditional student an hour would take her three times that by reading braille.
“It was very intimidating and frustrating. I cried almost every day after I got home from school because I got nothing from it,” Ha said. “I would be in a class with a lot of people, but I just felt like I was by myself.”
But Ha persevered. She came from a family with a strong work ethic – beginning with her grandfather and continued by her parents, who both work long hours to provide for their family.
Ha also hated the feeling of doing nothing, another factor that drove her to succeed as a student. When the electricity went out at her house earlier this year, boredom led her to take various sundries from around the house to craft a curtain. When she grew up at a school for the blind in Vietnam, she learned how to cook by helping the chef at the school prepare meals.
“I wasn’t thinking about learning how to cook,” she said. “I just wanted to help the lady in the kitchen.”
She knew education would provide her a pathway to a career. In the beginning, Ha’s English as a Second Language teacher used Google Translate to communicate with her, typing words in English on her smartphone and having the phone speak to her in Vietnamese. Once Ha grew a rudimentary understanding of English, they graduated from smartphones to communicating directly to each other.
Her first year of school in America was difficult, but she gradually grew to understand the language and find her place in Fort Smith, graduating from high school in 2014. Then she set her eyes on college.
Ha spent six months at Alphapointe in Kansas City, Mo., an organization that trained Ha to use computers and other technology. The following year, she decided to attend UAFS and met with Roger Young, UAFS coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As he did with other disabled students, Young assessed her disability and determined the accommodations the university could afford her based on her capabilities. That included additional time for tests and equipment to help her take notes.
Young also partnered with Tina Shores with the Arkansas Division of Services for the Blind in Fort Smith. The office provided Ha with orientation and mobility training to campus and special adaptive equipment to enable her to complete her college education.
There was plenty of preparation for Ha prior to starting school. She spent more than a month memorizing the routes to her classes, using her cane to feel textures in the ground and listening to traffic to gain a sense of her location. By the time school started, she was so comfortable with walking her route that she could do it unconsciously.
“It’s like memorizing a poem,” she said. “I get dropped off, and I know where to go.”
She eased her way into college, beginning with one class last fall and two classes in the spring. After finishing her first year with a 4.0 GPA, she enrolled in four classes in the fall 2016 semester.
While Ha has overcome plenty of adversity in her life, she faces new challenges each time she starts a new semester at school, each of which presents their own adversities. She must learn new routes to her classrooms, must find textbooks offered in braille, must face new areas of study that may be more challenging to her than other students.
But no matter the challenge, Young is confident she will be successful.
“She’s a great role model,” he said. “She’s an example of someone who wanted to go to college and is making it happen through force of will. Not just that, but she’s incredibly talented and smart. She’s put every effort into being successful, and I think she will be.”
About the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith
The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith is the premiere regional institution of Western Arkansas, connecting education with careers and serving as a driver of economic development and quality of place in the greater Fort Smith region. Through a small campus, dedicated professors, and the university’s unique bond with its community, students at UAFS are able to do more in the areas they are passionate about, both on- and off-campus, in a way that prepares them for post-graduate success. To find out how you can do more at UAFS, visit www.uafs.edu.