When Thanh Tôn Nữ dreamed of studying overseas, she envisioned Canada. Growing up watching her parents build a tourism business in Vietnam, she was eager to explore other countries and cultures. Her dad even visited Canada to see the culture and make sure it was a good fit for his daughter.
“I was going to go to Canada to study abroad and applied to a school,” she said. “Canada is so pretty. I never thought about going to the United States at all. Not even the slightest because the interview process is so hard.”
But the universe had different plans for Thanh. After winning a competition at school for an exchange student scholarship, she was told she was headed for the United States.
“I just had to have faith. The United States is livelier and it fit my personality more. So, I came here, and I didn’t even know how many states were here,” she laughed. “I didn’t know anything about America because I was supposed to study in Canada.”
Wanting to pick a new name for herself, Thanh decided to go by Stella in the United States. And after a long, tiresome 23-hour flight, 16-year-old Stella stepped off the plane and into Chicago with the clothes and items she brought with her and a very basic knowledge of English — and she couldn’t find her host family.
She had no way to call them, so she quickly found a place to connect to the internet to get in touch with her mom, who then tried to call the host family with no luck. Stella was stranded.
“It was bad,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was staying with. I didn’t have their picture. I was frustrated and crying.”
However, she soon discovered another student coming in from Thailand was joining the host family and was delayed. The family just didn’t realize Stella had arrived early.
In her first year in the United States, she struggled to adjust to the cultural differences. Her American high school didn’t have much diversity, which left her feeling lost and alone. That prompted her parents to offer to bring her back home.
“There were times when it felt so dark, and I wasn’t sure if I could do this,” she said. “I wanted to [go back home], but I have this pride in me — a pride I carry for my family.”
It was that pride that encouraged Stella to make some changes that made a big impact on her life and become the young, independent woman she is today.
“There are not a lot of people that can make it [to the United States]. I already made it here, so I can’t give up. And after one year, I did a complete 360-degree change,” she said.
Stella went from being the shy girl in the back of the classroom to the “fashionista” who got involved in everything. And if you’ve ever met Stella, that’s exactly the girl she is on Texas Wesleyan’s campus.
She didn’t have a lot of time to apply to colleges and worked with an agency in Vietnam to help her get into American universities. She had thought about going to the University of Arkansas, but they had a stipulation that she take more English classes, which left her feeling frustrated since she had already been in America for a few years.
The agency then recommended Texas Wesleyan because of the scholarships and experiences that other exchange students had with the school. And even though her first semester was in spring 2021 when COVID-19 had shut down much of the world, she was able to find her path when things started to get better.
“I came here by faith,” she said. “And I ended up really liking it here at Texas Wesleyan. I got into a job that required me to go to a lot of events, and I just got myself out there. I loved it.”
She works for both the Student Diversity & Inclusion Programs and the Marketing & Communications department, while also being the President of the Asian Student Association and International Student Organization.
“I’m super proud and super passionate about what I am doing, not only for my community, but for Texas Wesleyan,” she said. “I want to show people what Asian culture looks like. And I think [my team] is doing a great job. Without teamwork, without their support, we wouldn't be where we are right now. I'm really happy because I got great officers, friends and community.”
Stella has won several awards not only for her academics, but for her work in the community. And she was recently named “The Heart of Texas Wesleyan” during The Rammy’s, Texas Wesleyan’s annual award ceremony for student community achievement.
“My parents are very proud,” she smiled. “Every summer I visit back home, I give them my awards and certificates. My dad’s a very busy man, but he took a day out of his life to go buy frames and stick them on the wall. That was like gold.”
As she reflects back on her experiences, Stella is most proud of who she has become. Now in her junior year double majoring in marketing and finance, Stella has several internship prospects that may help her land a job in the United States after graduation.
“I think before I came to the United States, I was always that little girl that's behind my parents back. I never knew who I was,” she said. “But now I get to be who I want to be. And I’m really grateful because my parents support me no matter what. I just love the fact that they accept me, no matter who I am, because I am not the same Vietnamese girl anymore.”
Stella loves being in Fort Worth because the city isn’t too big or small and feels homey. She hopes to stay in Fort Worth to work in marketing, social media and event planning after graduating from Texas Wesleyan — and maybe even open her own coffee shop to offer unique cultural experiences.