Former refugee helps students learn the ropes of financial aid : Emily Griffith Technical College

Former refugee helps students learn the ropes of financial aid

Former refugee helps students learn the ropes of financial aid

Janet Do has come a long way to be Emily Griffith’s financial aid supervisor.

From being rescued in the middle of the ocean with other Vietnamese refugees to helping Emily Griffith’s students navigate the complexities of the American financial aid system, Janet knows what it’s like to land in Colorado not knowing a word of English and achieve the American dream.

None of it was easy, but that’s why she feels so passionately about her role as Emily Griffith’s supervisor of Financial Aid. “Financial aid helped me pursue my higher education to be where I am today,” she said. “This is a way for me to help students access higher education, because not everyone can pay out of pocket to better themselves.”

After the fall of Vietnam in 1975, Janet’s parents, who had nine children, began paying for spaces on the boats fleeing the country, starting with their oldest kids (Janet is number seven). Many of the so-called boat people died at sea or were recaptured and jailed, but about 800,000 people who fled Vietnam by boat, resettled in other countries. In 1984 when she was 10, it was Janet’s turn. Janet, her older sister and uncle set off in a boat packed with other refugees. Though her memory isn’t certain on this point, they were rescued, she thinks, by the U.S. Navy, then settled in refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines. A year later under the sponsorship of her older brother, who had preceded them to the U.S., they flew to Denver where he lived.

Life in the U.S. was far from ideal. School, Janet said, was “torture.” Unable to speak the language, she understood nothing and was picked on by other kids. The only subject that made any sense was math. “We were thrown into the deep end of the pool,” she said, “and you have to survive. School was no fun when you can’t talk, and you look different, and you don’t speak English.” After school, she had to contribute to the household, which meant cooking and cleaning to help the adults who worked, and once her brother and his wife started having kids, it means babysitting, too. She remembers burning a lot of rice. “Everyone had to do their part.”

With no ESL programs in school at the time, learning English was slow and grinding but eventually she caught on. She graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School about the time her parents arrived to join the family.

Concerned she wouldn’t do well at a four-year school, she started at the Community College of Denver having qualified for Federal Pell Grant and Colorado Student Grant, where she earned a certificate in Travel and Tourism (“I was too short to be a flight attendant”). She returned to CCD for an associate degree in marketing then transferred to CU Denver, trading an old job at the Federal Center in Lakewood for a full-time job in on campus in admissions helping students with their financial aid questions and other admission issues. All in all, she spent eight years getting her bachelor’s degree.

Like so many students who are the first in their families to attend college, she said, “I had no guidance from parents or older siblings.”

Her degree is in human resources, and though she worked for a short time doing HR work for Arapahoe Community College, she would return to work in financial aid at CU Denver, the Community College of Denver and then back to Arapahoe Community College where she worked for five years as a financial aid counselor.

In 2011, Emily Griffith recruited Janet to run financial aid at the College, where her father-in-law attended years before to learn English and sewing skills. Her work at Emily Griffith has helped make financial aid at the College more student friendly, and she has added the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (for students with exceptional financial need) to create a grant trifecta at the College that includes the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant( FSEOC), Federal Pell Grant and the Colorado Student Grant.

At this point, she explained, financial aid is in her blood.

“You don’t have to go through what I went through,” she said. “I help them because I went through it myself, so I can help others better. You can take a more direct path. My experience wasn’t wasted, I learned by doing it and got some good out of it.”