Pa Chia Thao is a BTC Class of 2013 and Mount Holyoke College Class of 2017 alumna; check out her 2019 Booyah Bash speech!
My name is Pa Chia Thao and I grew up in an immigrant Hmong family of seven. Neither of my parents had gone to school past elementary, so I never saw myself attending college. It’s not that I didn’t want to, it’s that I didn’t know how to. It is no exaggeration to say that Breakthrough Twin Cities played the biggest part in helping me make this dream of attending college a reality: assisting in editing my application essays, providing ACT preparation, and opening my eyes to the numerous institutions that are out there beyond Minnesota.
In 2017, I obtained my bachelor’s degree at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts, majoring in astronomy and physics. After graduation, I was selected to be an intern at the Gemini Observatory in Hawai‘i, where I was able to witness the beautiful collaboration of countries coming together to advance astronomy. I am currently working at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researching young planets beyond our own solar system. The overarching goal of my research is to understand how planets form and evolve throughout their lifetime. How did the planets in our solar system get to where they are today? What makes Earth so special that it’s able to sustain life? This fall, I will begin a Ph.D. program in Astrophysics at UNC. I wouldn’t have gotten here without the help of Breakthrough. What can I say? Breakthrough was more than just a ‘typical’ summer program; it has opened up many doors for me. Although, I am no longer part of the program, the effects of Breakthrough still live in me to this day.
My journey with Breakthrough began in the summer of 2007. On the first day, I remember riding the bus over to Breakthrough, being very nervous and not really sure what to except. When the doors to the bus opened, my anxiety melted away after seeing the contagious smiles and hearing the cheers from all the teachers. As part of Breakthrough, I was surrounded by so many students, who walked different paths of life, but we were bounded by this common goal of wanting to succeed, wanting the same opportunities and the same resources as our fellow peers. The energy, the passion, and the friendships all created a welcoming and positive environment that I could learn and thrive in.
In unique ways, not only has Breakthrough pushed me to voice my own opinion, but it has also helped me develop those opinions. At the beginning, it was quite easy for me to hide in a crowd, but at Breakthrough, I was no longer seen as a number, but rather as an individual. The small classrooms really encouraged participation from the students, and the teachers would go out of their way to make sure everyone spoke. This was hard for me in the beginning because raising my hand in class and speaking in front of everyone made me uncomfortable. But those summers at Breakthrough helped me start to gain the confidence to find my own voice. As a result, I have used that skill ever since – in the classroom, in the lab, in my internships, as well as in my day-to-day life.
In middle school, Breakthrough encouraged me to apply for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship. The staff at Breakthrough invested hours of their time by helping me in every step of the application process, teaching me that it is okay to ask for help. Thanks to Breakthrough, I was selected as a recipient for this scholarship, which has forever changed my life and has helped me reach my full potential. The scholarship has supported me in attending Mounds Park Academy for high school, Mount Holyoke College for undergrad, and now, UNC for graduate school. I am excited for this next chapter of my life at UNC, where I will be a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Scholar, and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow.
I wouldn’t have had the opportunities to get the education I have without Breakthrough. I wouldn’t be debt free without Breakthrough. And I wouldn’t be where I am today without the generous support of you.
I want to thank Breakthrough donors for believing in this amazing organization, this incredible mission, for making the impossible – possible. I also want to thank all the amazing teachers, who have played a part in fostering a love of learning in each and every one of us. Know that your hard work, your passion, and your dedication have not been forgotten.
And for the Class of 2019: I want you all to take a moment to look around at all the people here tonight who deeply care about your success. No matter how crazy life can get, no matter how difficult it can be, no matter how much time has passed, don’t ever forget that there is a whole community here that believes in you, in your abilities, and your dreams.