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Enkhjin Tuvshinzaya looks like a porcelain figurine, gentle and poised, but she also has a steely core of determination.
Enkhjin came to the U.S. from Mongolia when she was 8 years old, and had never been in school before. “When I came here they put me in the second grade and at first it was really weird.”
Her classmates seemed to know what was going on, but she didn't, at least not right away. “I always had to ask them and like they would give me the cold shoulder like ‘how could you not know that?'”
Enkhjin couldn't ask her parents for help because they didn't speak any English either. And they were struggling with their own transitions from Mongolia, often working seven days a week.
“My dad used to be a banker and my mom used to be an accountant and then they came here and my dad had to like do gardening and work at a delivery company and my mom worked at small restaurants as servers.” They were rarely home when Enkhjin’s school day was done. As an 8-year-old she says it was scary. “I have to find my own bus route and then come back home lock the door, call my parents and then I would do my homework. They had prepared food for me and I put it in the microwave and I would wait for them to come home.”
Enkhjin’s parents told her to stay in her bedroom when she got home, so the neighbors wouldn't see her. They warned her it wasn't OK in America for a little child to stay home alone. “I wanted to peek through the window to see kids playing because if police see you they are going to catch you and they would take me away from my parents.”
And there was another issue. “Since I was very little, my parents told me so we are illegal here and you can’t tell anybody this so it felt like I had made a sin like a little girl. Like I had this huge secret.”
In the fifth grade, she transitioned out of English as a second language classes and started getting straight A’s. “I am still in contact with my fifth grade teacher. I started taking intensive classes starting sixth, seventh, eighth grades and then I started taking AP classes during my high school years.”
Enkhjin restarted a defunct Red Cross club. She organized a winter coat drive, volunteered in nursing homes and served meals to the homeless. At the same time, she was looking after her baby sister, interpreting for her parents and filling out college applications. Enkhjin says this past academic year was the most important of all, and also the most difficult. Then it got worse.
“My mom called me and said there's a nurse at our house, can you please come home, hurry, because she couldn't understand it so I came home.”
Enkhjin had to tell her mother the results of a mammogram.
“So I came home and the nurse said that her results were abnormal and there is a growth of breast cancer. We were in shock because we didn't have insurance, we didn't know how the health system worked and we didn't have any family members here. My mom would just be just don't get sick, its expensive. After the nurse left she started crying, so I told her ‘mom it’s okay, it’s going to be fine, it’s in the early stage and we can get through this.’ I have to be strong for her because I was her older daughter.”
As her mother went through three biopsies, surgery and chemotherapy, Enkhjin had to navigate a complex maze, dealing with hospital staff, insurance agents and stacks of paperwork. It wasn't easy.
“Some of the hospitals would say ‘please stop calling me’ ‘this is not the right time’ and I would call again and say this is what is happening and they would say didn't I just talk to you? They would be kind of rude but there are a lot of nice people also. The nurse would be like I will be with you the entire way if you have any questions, just call us. And those parts were good, but once we got to the appointments they were like a doctor’s visit for 10 minutes is $270 and I was like ‘what?'”
Enkhjin’s father lost his job and so she took two jobs after school and on weekends to help pay the immediate bills. But she never lost sight of the long term.
“I was their hope, basically, because I could speak English. This was the year that was the most pressured and the year I had to try my best because at least if I did well in school it would take a lot of weight off their shoulders.”
Enkhjin didn't realize there were tens of thousands of undocumented students like her across the county, students who were brought here illegally but can now stay, because of a change in immigration policy. That grants temporary legal status to young people like Enkhjin as long as they meet certain criteria, such as having lived here for five years, served in the military or are students.
Enkhjin says her family and teachers were very supportive, but the college application process was still challenging because of her immigration status.
“My friends would just go online and fill out an application and, boom, they are done. Me, I had to call every school, some of the admission officers didn't know. I had to call them five, six times and finally they were like, ‘okay, apply as an international student’ and I am like why do I apply as an international when I have been here all my life? I learned the history of America and I went to the whole education system and I love it here and I love the opportunities. There are some countries that no matter how hard you try, there aren't opportunities.”
She says she just kept applying for scholarships, knowing as a non-citizen, she wasn't eligible for many.
“If I had picked up a list of 50 scholarships, I was only eligible for 10 and even if I was eligible and applied I didn't know if I was going to get it. But I just kept trying no matter how tired I was, I kept applying even for scholarships for people who played sports and I didn't play sports and obviously I didn't get it but I realized that you have just got to keep doing it and trying it to get the results.”
Her tenacity paid off and she’s received several scholarships such as the dream project scholarship: "I have the Esperanza scholarship and I have the Arlington community foundation scholarship, and I also got the rotary scholarship."
Her world is slowly growing more stable. Her mother is recovering and her father has found another job at a granite installation company.
“What keeps me motivated to be able to get an education for myself and get stable job where I can support my parents because they are not going to have retirement money and they work so hard but one day they are going to be old and I don't want them to do those hard laborious job. I also want to help my sister get to college.”
Enkhjin was the valedictorian of her class and is going to James Madison University this fall, to major in International Business. Her strategy, she says, will be the same as its always been to grab every opportunity because Enkhjin believes if you work hard enough, anything can happen.
Kristen Sorensen and Lindsey Sperber contributed to this report.
These reports are part of American Graduate — Let's Make It Happen! — a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."
Music: "Mongolia on the Line" by Eccodeck, Andrew McPherson from Buddha Bar IX