Hien Luu knew how to say "hello." That turned out to be a convenient icebreaker for a 6-year-old whose only other handle on the English language was counting from one to seven.
This was fall of '98, shortly after her family left a life in Vietnam for the West, and Hien entered first grade at Webster Hill Elementary School. She made friends with her one-word salutation, which she followed up with Vietnamese, hoping her classmates would somehow understand. Hien's teacher gave her treats for each new set of English words she learned.
"I remember being rewarded teddy bears," Hien, 17, now recounts with glee and perfect fluency. The Conard High School senior, who graduates Thursday in the top 1 percent of her class, believes that her best memories will be from childhood.
"Lucky" is how Hien describes herself, even as administrators and teachers reach for the superlative when remarking on her work ethic, skill and character. "Extremely organized," "talented artist," "extremely successful in my AP English Literature course" — or as Principal Tom Moore said, "one of the nicest people I've ever met in my life." When Assistant Principal Julio Duarte, her former guidance counselor, also heaped praise on her one recent afternoon, Hien insisted she was not special.
"It's because I did my work, you know. For 12 years," Hien said in a friendly but firm tone. "Hard work actually pays off."
Hien's latest reward is a four-year scholarship to the University of Notre Dame as a Hesburgh-Yusko Scholar, an inaugural program that drew more than 400 applicants for 25 slots. Hien was the lone student picked from Connecticut and one of only several high school seniors from the East Coast.
The program includes an expenses-paid summer experience every year, the first a three-week mountaineering trip next month to the North Cascades in Washington state. This future exhilarates Hien, who has led a sheltered existence centered around school and her family's home on Mayflower Street.
The success also seems to foment guilt.
Her father, Ha Luu, was an architect in Vietnam; Hao Duong, Hien's mother, a homemaker. In West Hartford they became entry-level manufacturing workers, Hien said, and are currently unemployed because of the recession.
"Life was so easy for them back then," in Vietnam, Hien said. "They decided to give up all that just for me and my sister," a Conard junior named Han.
"I don't want to disappoint them," Hien continued, "because I know they gave up so much and I don't want to render their sacrifices meaningless, I guess."
She added, "So that's why I do all my homework!" and began to laugh, as she often does.
But Hien's serious.
"I just feel so bad that they had to give up everything," she said later. "I think my parents, and my sister, and teachers … should go on the trip instead of me. They're the ones who got me here and got me the scholarships."
Duarte, the assistant principal, occasionally shook his head, marveling, as she spoke. Only recently did he learn that Hien, whose senior year courseload includes six Advanced Placement classes, was an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) student in elementary school. She deserves everything, Duarte said; but he agreed on her biggest motivator.
"I can't tell you how many times I deal with kids who are making poor choices, or are not meeting their potential, [despite] their parents and the sacrifices they have made," Duarte said. In Hien's case, "her heroes are her parents."
Beyond academics and artwork, Hien has been president of the senior class board, played doubles for the tennis team and is co-president of Conard's Habitat for Humanity chapter, doing builds in Hartford. The extracurriculars might have gained Notre Dame's attention, but Hien explained that they were her way of maturing socially in a life compressed with rules.
"I guess that's a blessing, in a sense. Them being so strict," Hien said of her mom and dad, who require her to speak only Vietnamese at home, to eat dinner with the family every evening, to not date until she's 25 and to not socialize with friends outside the Conard campus unless it's education-related. (Lately, she's gotten around the latter by saying she's working on "projects.")
"My friends get all these privileges — going out and hanging out with their friends, things like that, and they take it for granted," said Hien, who has not been to a party in high school and laughed for a few moments at the prospect. Some of these same friends, she said, tell her that college will "bring me out of my shell."
Hien's plans: majoring in architecture at Notre Dame, with a minor in Peace Studies. Then, Hien said, she will become an architect.
"Like my dad."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun