It’s not unusual for a student to thank her family for their support during a graduation speech. For Kiri Nhong, a 2017 graduate of the LeBow College of Business’ online MBA program. However, her thank you to her parents was a little more personal than most. The daughter of Cambodian refugees, her parents understood the importance of an education, even though it put their own lives in danger.
”My parents grew up in Cambodia in a small village. My dad was a teacher, the only one out of his entire family who earned a college degree. He became a teacher and taught in the capital city, Phnom Penh,” Nhong explained. “At the time that he was teaching, the communist [group] Khmer Rouge overtook the city. Cambodia went through a civil war and a genocide. The Khmer Rouge targeted educated people, like business people, doctors, government officials, celebrities and teachers.”
Fearing for their safety, Nhong’s parents fled the capital city by foot, arriving six days later in their home village. Eventually, though, the Khmer Rouge entered their village, putting the villagers in work camps and executing the educated. Though her father was questioned more than once, the family managed to escape to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Nhong was born, before eventually moving to the United States.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the danger his education posed in his home country, Nhong’s father always stressed the importance of her schoolwork.
“Growing up, I would hear nonstop, ‘You have to finish school, make sure you get a good degree,’” Nhong said. “It was a constant barrage of school-related stuff and how important school was.”
While it may have been a bit overwhelming as a child, this emphasis on education paid off. Nhong taught middle school before moving into the corporate world and pursuing her MBA. Now, Nhong is instilling that same emphasis on education in her own daughter, who just finished her first year of college. In fact, she started her MBA degree program as her daughter was applying for college to act as a role model for her. And, just as when she was a child, Nhong’s parents were supportive of her furthering her education.
Nhong’s graduation speech left her parents in tears. “They didn’t even know that they had any impact on me until the speech,” she said. “They thought, ‘She doesn’t listen to us.’”
In fact, her parents impacted her life so much that Nhong tried to express those same lessons in her graduation speech. She encouraged her fellow graduates to be bold and take risks, and to always strive to reach their fullest potential. After all, she personally knew how education could change a life.