When she was 8, Sophea Danh worked alongside her mother in the rice paddies and vegetable fields of Vietnam. One of four children originally from Cambodia, she did her part at an early age to help support her family.
"I was tempted sometimes to think that life wasn't fair," said Danh, now 22 and living in New Port Richey. "I knew, though, that if I worked hard enough, good things would come."
This week Danh will reap the benefits of her hard work. Today she will graduate with her associate's degree from Pasco-Hernando Community College. On Friday, she will earn the title of American citizen at a swearing-in ceremony in Tampa. And on Saturday, she will celebrate her 23rd birthday.
"I don't know how I did it, but I did," she said with a smile. "Everything is good."
Her mother, Jessica Danh, brought the family to the United States in search of opportunity. Life in Cambodia had been challenging for this divorced mother of four, and she wanted her kids to have a chance at an advanced education and a prosperous future. The family originally settled in Massachusetts, and Sophea Danh graduated from Lowell High School.
Florida's warm weather and diverse melting pot drew the family to the Sunshine State in 2009. Yet, when it came time for her to go to college, Sophea Danh initially balked at the idea.
"I didn't think I was smart enough," she said quietly. "I didn't know English very well."
Aside from the encouragement of her mother and her stepfather, Michael Bardzik, Danh also had a dream for the future. She wanted to become a nurse.
"When I was young, I had to get (stomach) surgery, and I met a nurse who took care of me so well," she said. "I thought, 'I want to be like her one day.' "
During her time at PHCC, Danh has done much to prepare for her intended career. The student who thought she wasn't smart enough for school now speaks three languages (Cambodian and Vietnamese as well as English, which she says her PHCC instructors helped her master) and she is a member of the PHCC Phi Theta Kappa honor society. This semester alone she balanced five courses with a steady regimen of study and preparation for her citizenship test, which she passed April 10.
She also continued her work at two volunteer jobs, serving as a tennis coach at the New Port Richey Recreation and Aquatic Center and as an assistant at Life Care Center, a rehabilitative facility in New Port Richey.
"Our residents are always asking 'When is Sophea coming back?' " said Denise Hoban, the activities director at Life Care Center. "She always smiles and is a true joy. I wish I had more of her here."
"She's such a bright and articulate young lady," added Life Care receptionist Trish Herman. "She's caring, not only with residents, but with volunteers as well. Caring comes naturally to Sophea."
Danh enjoys talking with the residents and serving them ice cream, she said, "but somehow it doesn't seem like enough. I want to do more, which is why I want to be a nurse."
Also building on her experience at the recreation center, Danh said she might like to have a sideline as a professional tennis coach. In the meantime, she has applied for PHCC's registered nurse education program.
"Work hard" is the advice Danh gives to other immigrants who seek to make their way in America. And the benefits, in her mind, are always worth the effort.
"I used to smile only on the outside," she said. "Now I smile from the inside out. I'm so happy here."