At the age of 23, most college students will have obtained their degrees and started doing their first job.
However, at that age, Huynh Thi Ngoc Nhi only began going to college, after ten years working as a seamstress in a manufacturing company to support her family and pay their debts.
Nhi, now a freshwoman at Thu Dau Mot University, located in the southern province of Binh Duong, did not have an easy life where she could finish her studies within 12 years before going onto the university as her peers.
Born in 1995, Nhi had to drop out of school when she turned 14.
Long journey covered in tears
As a child, her father suffered from shrunk intestine so the hospital emergency room was a familiar place for her family.
After 15 years suffering from the condition, the man was diagnosed with cancer and diabetes.
Not only was the family poor, they also had many children with Nhi having six other siblings.
As the ill father was unable to make a living, the family had to loan great sums of money for medical treatments.
However, no treatments could save him as he soon passed away leaving the family in poverty and huge debt.
Having no options left, Nhi’s mother sold the only asset the family had – their house in Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands – to pay off the debt.
With no properties left, Nhi’s mother had to find a way to provide for the rest of her family, but the family’s misfortune did not just end there.
Not long after that, Nhi’s mother was involved in a traffic accident which shattered her left shoulder.
Hue, the mother, was hospitalized in Ho Chi Minh City where she spent a whole month receiving treatment.
The person that caused the accident was too poor to be able to cover Hue’s expenses and so once again, the family was drowning in debt because of the high prices of medical treatments.
Having spent a month in the hospital, the bill that came back was more than the family could afford – tens of millions of dong. (VND10 million = US$428)
Once again, the family had to make a loan, but this time, they had no assets left to sell and Nhi, at that time an eighth grader, was the only member of the family who could take on the responsibility.
“My mom was in the hospital. We did not even have enough to eat, how are we supposed to cover the tuition fee?” Nhi recalled the moment she had to make a tough decision in tears.
Despite being an outstanding student for eight consecutive years, school at that time was not an option.
Nhi had to put her schooling aside and took up a new life as a factory worker. That was when she was only 14 years old.
From seamstress to a college student
At the age where normal children’s only worry was homework and school, Nhi started working in a small clothing manufacturing factory in Ho Chi Minh City to afford meals for her mother and herself.
At first, she did not know how to sew so she was only helping in factory with unimaginably low wages so as to be able to learn the profession.
Nhi was seen still practicing her sewing skills as late as ten at night when everyone was already going to bed with a hope of becoming a skilled seamstress and earning a little more.
After a while, the manager finally allowed her to participate in the sewing process in which she could earn slightly more than VND2 million ($86) per month which was barely enough to cover meals of the sick mother and herself.
Six years passed by before Nhi knew it, but her dream to enter a university was never forgotten.
At 19, when her peers started their college life, she registered to attend classes at a Supplementary Education Center in Binh Duong’s Di An Town.
So as to be able to pay for her tuition and provide for herself, Nhi started working at another manufacturing company where she was paid VND 3.5 million ($151) per month.
However, money does not come easy and with higher salary comes more work.
Her classes were scheduled from 6:00 pm to 9:15 pm every night so she had to leave early every day even though she was still required to finish all the work assigned.
“Because a lot of orders needed to be finished urgently, the factory managers always pushed us to finish it quickly,” Nhi explained.
“I was in charge of the back of jeans and was the only one responsible for this part.
“I asked to leave early to attend school while others stayed late until 8:00 pm to finish all the work.
“Hence, I needed to finish all the work so that my leaving early would not result in my coworkers having to work overtime.”
As her classes ended late at night, Nhi had to continue stay up late to finish her homework and review her lessons.
Hence, Nhi would leave notes on the side of her sewing machine so that she could be studying while working.
When there was too much work she even had to stay up almost a whole night with only one to two hours of sleep.
“There were times I was exhausted and extremely stressed out,” she recalled.
“On one side I had plenty of unfinished work, on the other were unfinished homework.”
During the daytime, when she worked in the factory, she usually left her notes in the basket for fabric where she could have a quick glimpse on her lessons so that she could memorize them.
The notes were written in larger handwriting to make it easier for the seamstress to have a quick glimpse at it without having the supervisor finding out.
Nhi was lucky enough to be gifted with a good memory so it did not take her too long to memorize the lessons.
Not only was she one of the outstanding students in the class, she also received a first prize at Academic Competition for Literature.
Overcome everything life throws at her
Having overcome all the difficulties, Nhi was finally a first-year student at Thu Dau Mot University. Her first choice was English major but since her family could not afford the tuition, she decided to major in elementary education.
Entering the school, there were numerous expenses that began to worry the new student, especially when she could no longer work as a seamstress.
She agreed to tutor two students for VND700,000 ($30) per month each, which was not much but was the only income she had.
However, for the past two weeks, Nhi could not teach her students as she was involved in an accident which sprained her ankle and wounded her knee.
Even though the doctor suggested she should stay in the hospital, the poor girl had to lie about her pain because she knew she could not bear such expanse at the moment.
“It does not hurt that much, so can you let me go home and take medicine instead?” Nhi said to her doctor.
It might not occur to him that his patient could not afford hospital fees.
Luckily, Nhi has many kind-hearted classmates that helped carry Nhi to her classes, especially those on higher floors.
They also each contribute so that Nhi could afford her doctor’s appointments, while also encouraging her to attend all the classes and not give up despite the difficulties.