By Vickie Chachere
TAMPA, Fla. – Her name was Maylin; she was 7-years-old and far away from her home in Panama. The little girl with no legs and no parents to care for her made her way to the USF campus where she found a new friend at the Shriner’s Hospital for Children.
USF student Thu Can wants to be a doctor, and while volunteering at the hospital she was quickly drawn to little Maylin. The two would make necklaces together from beads, but Maylin’s lack of English and Can’s haltering high school Spanish left the two to resort to giggle-inducing gestures to communicate. Can wanted more for her patient, and for herself.
“I wanted desperately to communicate to her, to learn her story or just talk about the shiny, red hair of her new mermaid baby doll,” Can would later reflect in an essay that would win her one of USF’s first scholarships from an endowment created by President Judy Genshaft and her husband Steven Greenbaum. “I felt helpless as I stood next to her, unable to fully appreciate the experience because of the language barrier.”
For Can, a double major in English and biomedical sciences already fluent in Vietnamese, there was only one solution. She had to learn Spanish and learn it fast.
The oldest of three daughters, Can’s father works in a nail salon and her mother takes care of the home. And when she applied to the new Genshaft/Greenbaum Passport Scholars Fund, there was no question she was exactly the kind of student who inspired the gift. Focused, curious and with a goal in mind, Can is the first recipient chosen for the award, created earlier this year. She traveled to Costa Rica.
The $1 million endowment created by USF’s First Couple is a way to support and encourage students across the USF System to expand their education through study abroad and service learning opportunities. The gift fulfills President Genshaft’s long-held goal that every USF student have an opportunity to travel internationally before they graduate.
Christopher Smith is the second scholarship recipient and spent part of the summer in a French language immersion program in Canada. Smith started teaching himself French before beginning his formal studies about 18 months ago.
The five weeks he spent in Quebec is the first time he’s traveled outside of the United States, but is already thinking about where he wants to go how he will fulfill his new goal of becoming a university-level French instructor. He returns to Tampa in August.
“I'd definitely love to travel to France itself, since French is my major,” he said. “The culture and the beauty have always made me want to go, but I've never had the opportunity.”
Stepping off the plane in Costa Rica in June, Can soon found herself in a new world. She had never traveled alone, and purposely did not bring a cell phone, a laptop or any other means to stay in touch with the English-speaking world or her close-knit family back in St. Petersburg. She asked to be assigned to a family that would be hosting no other students; she wanted to be completely and totally immersed in this new language and culture.
The first days were difficult. Her host mother spoke no English but was determined to treat her house guest like royalty, asking what Can would want for breakfast or how would she like her room prepared. Just as with Maylin, Can struggled to communicate and overcome this new feeling of homesickness. She’d traveled many times to visit relatives in her native Vietnam, but never before did she feel so alone.
But that soon changed. Now completely immersed in Spanish and soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of Costa Rica, her ability to communicate came quickly. With only a month to spend there, she said she had to learn as much as she could as quickly as she could, but the complete immersion worked.
“I went to church with my host family and completely understood what the pastor was saying,” Thu recounted after returning to Tampa where she is preparing to graduate next spring and then begin the process of preparing to apply to medical schools. “I surprised myself.”
The experience left her with other life-changing moments, some as harsh as the desperate conditions facing street people she met while joining her host mother in a food project, and others the sweet moments of kindness she encountered.
“One of my fondest moments of this program has been coming home to find roses placed in my room and little buttercup flowers packed inside my lunch bag, all put by my host mom,” she said.
“I also came home one night to find hand towels placed on the bathroom rack with my name stitched on the towels. Despite her hectic schedule, my host mom continues to show me unconditional love and attention. Through her simple, but very meaningful gifts, I learn that life is meant to be savored, not rushed.”
To find out more, visit the Genshaft/Greenbaum Passport scholarship page.
Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.