Reading through the details about Melvin Le, it would be easy to categorize the Seward County Community College graduate as a model minority. Son of two immigrants, My Le (his father) and Trang Nguyen (his mother) from Vietnam — check. Honor student taking high-level math and science classes — check. Hard working employee at local business — check.
But meeting Le throws the stereotypes out the window.
An amiable 19-year-old, Le loves an elaborate practical joke, throws himself into creative writing, drama and debate, and humanities-adjacent pursuits. He characterizes himself as “super-talkative” and while he is able to keep his head down and cram for finals, he is willing to celebrate earning a “B.”
He credits a great deal of his ability to relax, to accept himself wholeheartedly, to embrace growth over perfectionism, to his time at SCCC.
As he approached commencement week in May 2022, ready to receive his second associate degree (he obtained his first at the same time he graduated Liberal High School a year before), he reflected on his decision to stay at Seward for an additional year.
“When I was a senior, I planned to be a dentistry major at a four-year university, because that’s how you show love to your parents in the Vietnamese community — you become a doctor or a dentist. It’s all about prestige,” he said. “But I did not know what I wanted to do, it got to a point that I was asking everyone for advice, all of a sudden I stopped, and said, ‘I’m not ready.’”
It wasn’t that Le lacked the classroom chops to complete high-level work. He had already earned an associate of arts degree concurrently.
“I was still in that mindset of thinking I have to be perfect, have to be the best, get 100 or I’m no good,” he recalled. While high achievements in academia can be impressive, he recognized a streak of immaturity in himself. “I realized that if I’m not ready emotionally, I can’t go. I wanted to focus not only academics, but on myself, stop beating myself up, stop pushing myself down.”
This was not unfamiliar territory for Le, who’d already overcome an array of barriers. The first, from early childhood, was language.
“Being an only child of parents who were older when they immigrated, we spoke Vietnamese at home, and interacted with others who did the same. I thought everyone knew how to speak Vietnamese, because that’s the only language I heard,” he said. “When I went to school for the first time, I assumed people there hadn’t learned to talk yet because they could not converse with me in Vietnamese.”
Le was placed in English as a Second Language (ESL) preschool class, where he rapidly closed the language barrier. By first grade, he was asking his teachers for extra homework.
“I remember being really nerdy, asking for more assignments. I knew how to multiply and divide. I asked if I could skip third grad, and they said no,” he said.
“My parents are both incredibly smart and educated,” he said. “My dad taught junior high physics in Vietnam, and my mom was a high school chemistry teacher. All through school, I would do my homework in front of her, and if I had a question, she could explain things to me.”
Yet neither parent had mastered English. They were too worn out from working opposite shifts at National Beef Packing Co.
Le’s mother took care to provide him with the essentials of a stable home life and strong family ties, including explanations of Vietnamese cultural norms. Trips “back home” every few years gave Le a strong sense of belonging as he formed relationships with his maternal grandparents and extended family.
“My mother’s father, who died when I was five, was a poet,” he said. “He wrote a song that is still very popular in Vietnam.” His grandmother died in 2016, and Le dreams of going back to visit their graves. Le’s paternal grandfather, who lives in Liberal, arrived in the U.S. decades ago through a special military visa.
An outsider on the inside
Yet as a young teen,none of that was as strong as the pull to fit in with his classmates. By middle school, Le’s desire to be liked, to be cool, led to dark period.
“I felt like a loser. I tried to make everyone like me, being a clown, but inside I was very worried. I pushed my mom away. I finally reached a point where I wanted to not live anymore, and I told some teachers,” he said. “I felt weak and messy but they weren’t judgmental and eventually word got to my parents.”
Le started therapy, even though “my parents didn’t understand the whole mental health thing,” he recalled with a laugh. “They are stereotypical Asian, asking why did you get a B+ instead of an A, and feeling like more hard work is the answer to everything. But they’re breaking away from that. They have really learned.”
Le’s mother confided that she, too, felt the pressure to be perfect.
“My mom was just like me growing up,” he said. “If she got an A- instead of an A, she would go home and cry. She wanted to be the best. But there’s a point where it’s not worth it. Now my mom says, ‘if I knew I was going to work at a packing plant, I wouldn’t have stayed up crying in high school.’”
Le’s academic journey is due in part to a sense that he can complete dreams his mother set aside. She has told him many times about her anxiety as a young college student in Vietnam and the panic she felt when facing important tests — a fear so intense that she opted out of the entrance exam for medical school rather than risk failure.
As Le learned to forgive himself for mistakes and imperfections, “I fully turned it around — my mindset,” he said. “This was a process that began in high school. I joined debate and forensics, I was with theater kids, where it was OK to be different — we’re all weird together, it was great. I was competitive in forensics.”
Taking humanities classes and extracurriculars, along with high-prestige STEM classes, enabled Le to flourish.
“My parents at first didn’t like it when I traveled to forensics tournaments, but they came to see ‘This is good thing for Melvin to do, he’s not cooped up in the house, it’s important for us to be well-rounded,’” he said. In his spare time, after a full load of high school and concurrent college classes, Le worked part-time at El Kan Pharmacy.
Choosing a learning environment
When it was time to choose a college and course of study, the family’s hard-won sense of balance provided direction. Still entertaining the notion of dentistry, Le and his parents visited the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
“I felt empty,” he said. “I knew I could succeed but I wouldn’t enjoy it. My mom did not like it, either, and felt very out of place and was visibly upset. That was the point where I said, ‘I’m not ready to leave, and it won’t be good for me. I’m going to SCCC, and then to pharmacy school.”
Le had stayed in contact with an older friend and SCCC alum, Karlo Flores, who had followed that path.
“He gave me great advice, from not taking more than 20 credit hours at a time, to how to apply to pharmacy school. I really look up to him,” Le said.
As a full-time incoming freshman at SCCC, Le found he had made the right call. He joined the SCribblers creative writing club, signed onto the Quiz Bowl team, wrote for the Crusader student newspaper, participated in the Homecoming royalty court, and worked as a tutor in the Student Success Center.
“It’s been a real confidence booster, and a great learning experience,” he said. “I really like the professors, the faculty members, the courses. I learned how to study, manage my time, not overstuff my plate. Everyone I’ve met on campus has been wonderful.”
In May, Le learned he had been accepted to the KU School of Pharmacy in Wichita. The achievement is a feat that cut what normally takes four years of preparation for pharmacy school down to the one he completed at SCCC. He plans to share an apartment with another Vietnamese, first-generation student from Liberal, and strengthen ties with the wider Vietnamese community in the metropolitan area.
The satellite campus, smaller than KU’s main center in Lawrence, is “beautiful and just the right size for me,” Le said. “At Seward, I made so many friends and close relationships and I’m hoping to find something like that in Wichita. It has all the resources I need to be successful.”
Though Le has not structured his growth inside the limits of the model minority stereotype, he does embody one aspect of immigrant success.
“My ultimate dream is to start a family and settle down. I know I’m smart, but I’m not a genius,” he said. “There’s a point where the awards, the accolades are there, but it’s really about the life you make for yourself and your family. That’s the dream. That’s the American dream.”