By Gary Peterson Contra Costa Times San Jose Mercury News
Sumat Lam’s parents made sure he learned the alphabet when he was in preschool. Under their direction, he began addition, subtraction and multiplication while in kindergarten. He tackled his first “Harry Potter” novel early in his third-grade year.
At Pittsburg High School, he earned a 4.63 GPA and impressed teachers with his unquenchable thirst for learning. Yet even as his friends weighed their higher education options, Lam, son of Cambodian refugees, had a difficult time believing college was in his future.
“I knew my parents wanted me to go to college,” said Lam, 20, a junior majoring in anthropology at Stanford University. “But at the same time, I didn’t believe in my own capability. I didn’t believe in the opportunities that I had.”
Not until he was accepted by Students Rising Above, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that assists low-income high school students to overcome disadvantaged upbringings, did Lam dare to dream of a four-year degree.
With the organization providing financial support, plus academic and personal guidance, Lam arrived on the Stanford campus in fall 2010. In so doing, he signified the culmination of a journey that began in a Cambodian refugee camp in the late 1970s, during the final months of the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge. That camp, in Thailand, was where Lam’s mother and father, Bunseny and Suvathana, met.
Lam’s parents immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. They found it, relatively speaking, in Pittsburg. Despite Suvathana Lam owning his own landscaping company, the family had to rely on government assistance to make ends meet. That reliance grew when the family patriarch injured his back in a car accident in 2005 and was forced to significantly reduce his workload.
But the Lams were secure in the knowledge that their children, sons Sakora and Sumat and daughter Sarah, would be free from the nightmarish life they had experienced in Cambodia: hard labor, loss of land, and the death of family members in the infamous killing fields.
“Like many in the Cambodian-American population, they don’t like to talk about that,” Sumat Lam said of his parents. “Whatever I can piecemeal, I take it for what it is, and I appreciate my parents more for it.”
Though he lived a sheltered life centered on home and family while growing up, Lam was undeterred when it came to his intellectual curiosity.
“When his first essays came in, I was stunned how good they were,” said Ramsay Thomas, who taught Lam in two classes at Pittsburg High. “He was just one impressive kid. His interest in learning is above and beyond.”
Still, the Stanford campus is a world away from the family-centric life Lam knew in Pittsburg. Brenda Walker, Lam’s Students Rising Above adviser, recalls wondering if her quiet, young pupil was ready to take such a big step.
“He was in the academic decathlon as a senior,” Walker said. “He was the only one in his group who answered all five questions. In his (Students Rising Above) interview, he was so sharp. But we were thinking, he’s too reserved. He has to open up. It was a pleasure to see him jump out of his chair with joy when he got all five questions right.”
Lam said he’s making an effort to be more of an extrovert at Stanford, yet he wonders how well he fits in. Others see growth. “At first he said, ‘I’ve never left Pittsburg. I’m scared. What am I going to do?'” Walker said. “Sure enough, within his first quarter he was saying, ‘I don’t want to ever come home.'”
Lam, who spend the fall 2012 quarter studying in Chile, isn’t putting limits on his postgraduate life. Travel? Working for a startup? Computer programming? He’s leaving all options open, “because at 20 I doubt I know what I want to do in life.”
He does know this much: He would like to return to his ancestral homeland to explore his roots, mimicking a trip his family made when he was a boy.
“They wanted us to realize what being Cambodian means,” he said of his parents, “and what’s different between being in the U.S. and being in Cambodia.”
The experience made an impression.
“We had a conversation about that trip,” Thomas said. “He said at night they only had electricity for about an hour from a generator. The whole village would gather to watch TV, and that’s all the power they had. He said, ‘I knew I grew up in poverty, but everything changed when I went to Cambodia.'”
It’s a world view that continues to serve him well.
“I think I made the right decision coming to Stanford,” he said. “There are so many opportunities. Right now my problem is, which one do I pick?”
Students Rising Above: Where Are They Now?
Students Rising Above, a San Francisco nonprofit founded in 1988, provides financial and mentoring support, summer internships and medical and dental services to students with strong character and scholastic aptitude. The program assists first-generation college students striving to overcome impoverished upbringings by shepherding them through their senior year of high school, the college application process and throughout their years in higher education. For more information, go to http://studentsrisingabove.org.
Profiles of former Students Rising Above selections will appear periodically.