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Nicholas Kristof: Let's celebrate the mightiest college graduate of the year

LONG AN, Vietnam - Tay Thi Nguyen is one of the mightiest people I've met, at 94 pounds. She has a towering presence, at a bit more than 5 feet tall. She is so strong that she probably could bench press 25 pounds.

Three times Tay Thi has fainted while here at college, training to become an English teacher, because she starved herself to afford tuition. But she had the strength to persist and soon will become the first person in her village to graduate from college, and she embodies such grit and selflessness that, to me, she's the world's college graduate of the year.

Tay Thi, 20, also underscores the principle - especially important in the aftermath of the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls - that the best leverage we have to achieve social change is to educate girls.

The eighth of nine children to an impoverished farming family in the Mekong Delta, Tay Thi shone in school, but her mother demanded - unsuccessfully - that she drop out after primary school and earn money as a live-in housemaid in distant Ho Chi Minh City.

"She got very angry with me," Tay Thi recalled. In eighth grade, her mom burned her school books to try to force her to drop out, but Tay Thi borrowed books and continued to excel.

Staying in school was possible because of the help she received from Room to Read, an aid group that sponsored Tay Thi and covered her school fees, uniform, books, bicycle to get to school and other expenses.

Tay Thi persevered, even when her parents again burned her books in 12th grade, and, as she graduated from high school, she prepared secretly for the college entrance examination. Her mother found out about this when Tay Thi left to take the exam and lashed out, saying "I hope you fail the exams."

Other students arrived at the exam location escorted by cheering, doting parents; Tay Thi arrived alone, sobbing. Still, she aced the exam.

With no parental subsidy, college seemed unaffordable, but Tay Thi saved every penny she could. She had long worked every vacation - sometimes in a factory job by day and in a duck soup restaurant by night until 2 a.m. Even during Vietnamese New Year celebrations, she worked in the fields by herself to catch crabs for money - watching the fireworks in the distance.

At college, Tay Thi confined herself to a food budget of $3.50 - per week. Malnourished, she sometimes toppled over in the middle of class in a dead faint.

Professors and students discovered that she was starved and basically penniless - leaving Tay Thi feeling humiliated. "I was so upset about that," she said, but, in retrospect, it was a turning point because her teachers and classmates responded with kindness, sympathy and help.

Room to Read arranged a corporate scholarship, which gave her a bit more spending money, and Tay Thi managed to eat enough to keep from fainting in public.

Tay Thi shares a small room with two other young women, all sleeping on the floor next to each other. She set up a small reading light that won't keep the others awake. She studies until midnight, and then sets her alarm for 4 a.m. to resume studying.

She is just as passionate about education for others. First, she encouraged her older brother to return to school, after years of working as a laborer, so he could become a mechanic. When he resisted, Tay Thi went out and registered him as a student, picking his courses and browbeating him until he gave in.

Then she coaxed her younger brother to follow her to college, where he is now a freshman. Even her parents have come around, partly because they see that Tay Thi will soon be an English teacher - and the best-paid member of the extended family.

Tay Thi is trying to arrange to teach in her own remote village school, where she wants to advocate for education. "I would like to change people's thinking," she says. "It's a way of helping children in my community," she said.

The kidnappings in Nigeria have put a spotlight on girls' education, and Tay Thi is an example of why the issue is critical. It's sometimes said that if you send a boy to school, you educate a man; if you send a girl to school, you educate a village. That's not always true, but empowering girls remains one of the best ways to empower a community. Girls' education also strongly correlates to reduced family size. When I asked Tay Thi if she planned to have nine children like her mom, she roared with laughter and gave a firm "NO!"

So let's celebrate the mightiest college graduate of this commencement season, a young woman of incomparable strength who now is thrilled at the prospect of returning to an impoverished farming village to teach children and change the world.

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Contact him at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.



By NICHOLAS KRISTOF