Case worker steers student up the hill to SU degree

At the age of 17, Oubon Phommanyrath was living on her own in the Salvation Army Transitional Apartments on Salina Street in Syracuse. Phommanyrath had fled from a physically and emotionally abusive home life at age 14, ending up on the streets.

Despite her circumstances, Phommanyrath completed high school and was close to realizing her dream of attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City to study design. “I received an acceptance letter from FIT in New York,” says Phommanyrath. “I also had a four-year full scholarship from the University at Albany and SUNY Oneonta. But I chose to pursue my dream of attending a major design school.”

Three weeks after accepting FIT’s offer, Phommanyrath received news that all the dorms were full and she would have to find an apartment in New York. Her caseworker at the Salvation Army made dozens of phone calls to FIT, but was unsuccessful in securing a dormitory for Phommanyrath. “At the time, I was only 17 and still living in the transitional housing. I did not have the finances or resources to survive alone in New York City. I was emotionally devastated and mentally crushed, realizing the dream I had nurtured throughout high school was not going to happen.”

Later that week, Phommanyrath’s case worker called her into her office and gave her a brochure for Syracuse University. “I always admired SU for its reputation. The fact that it was local and I wouldn’t have to find a place to live was also positive,” she says. Phommanyrath applied and was accepted and is now proud to be a SU alumnus.

While she admits how difficult it was to work all day and then “run up the hill” to attend a three-hour class, she’s happy that through the help of the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), she was able to earn a bachelor of professional studies degree from University College. “I am a product of what HEOP can do for students who, for one reason or another, could not afford to pay for college. It’s a gift that will live with me for years to come.”

Phommanyrath says her educational journey taught her a lot about patience. “It took me over 10 years to finish my program, and it did not come without a price,” she says. “I wanted to quit so many times. I was young and confused when I started here, but by the time I reached my junior year, I saw the path opening and I could see the end. I worked hard to improve my GPA and even made the dean’s list.”

Although Phommanyrath has reached such a significant milestone, she will continue to pursue her dreams. “I want to go on to graduate school and pursue a master’s degree in psychology, social work or fine arts,” she says. “I want to be able to financially support my mother and buy her a home. She loves to garden, and I want her to be able to retire in her own home, doing what she loves to do. I also want to make her proud because I am the first person in my family to attend and graduate from college.”

Phommanyrath also hopes her college degree will open new doors for her. “I experienced many losses, financial setbacks and emotional hardships. But by surrounding myself with people who cared about me, I was able to succeed. The University College staff is exceptional—everyone at UC is friendly, supporting and welcoming—from the financial aid office to the teaching staff.”

Phommanyrath says that her degree from SU means many things – tears of happiness, nights of studying and writing papers, and sacrificing time and sleep. The most rewarding moment came when she picked up her cap and gown, and was able to hold the little tassel that says 2011. “Learning will always be a part of my life, because I will always have a student mentality,” she says.