September 23, 2018 | ° F

Student recounts suicidal thoughts after academic dismissal

Person of the week

Sandwiched between the Livingston Campus Day Care Center and a parking lot spotted with solar panels, the only way to identify the Asian American Cultural Center is by the brown and red University sign stuck on the wall, to the left of the door.

Inside, at one of several round tables in a large welcoming space sits Anna Phung, the special projects intern for the center. She had staked a claim to the table as a student is expected to —laptop propped open with papers and books lining the boundaries of her generous study space.

But her semester GPA, nearly a year ago, fell to a 1.3. Phung received an academic dismissal notice from the University, asking her to leave the school due to her poor academic performance.

“I automatically thought about suicide at that moment,” she said.  

Her family’s pressure for her to succeed made her withdraw from academic life. Her family wanted her to excel in college and find a husband to marry.

Her parents would call to ask if Phung had a boyfriend, and each time she used the same excuse — that she’s busy with schoolwork. But Phung was keeping a secret. She was a closeted lesbian.  

“It was a big burden on me to carry,” Phung said.  “I think with all that coming together, I didn’t know how to express myself the best way, so I just kept it in and then I couldn’t focus on school.”

She realized in the fall of 2012 that she needed to tell her parents the secret.

“Either I ignored them and I hurt my parents more by ignoring them, or I lied and that meant that I was hurting myself,” Phung said.

Growing up near Atlantic City, Phung said she saw friends labeled as queer, whether they were or not, and getting bullied for it.

“[My mom] would have these ideas like ‘Ellen DeGeneres — she’s really funny, but the only issue with her is that she’s gay,’” she said.

The national discourse on homosexuality made Phung believe that identifying herself as heterosexual was the easier path for her to take.

“That idea — if I could choose that [heterosexual] lifestyle, which really, you can’t choose it, in that sense,” she said. “That was really hard struggling with that growing up,” Phung said.

Coming out was a difficult process, she said.

“I was really scared actually, just because my parents have always indicated that being queer wasn’t okay,” Phung said.

But her mother accepted her honesty, even though she did not understand what it meant to be queer, and her father followed her mother’s lead.

“She reinforced the fact that, no matter what, she still loved me,” Phung said.

Receiving the academic dismissal notice was the propelling force that motivated Phung to turn her life around.

Phung worked her way last semester to a 3.8 GPA. Her role as special projects intern at the AACC is paired with her role as office manager in the University’s Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities.

Zaneta Rago, assistant director at the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities works with Phung.

“Often times, because of the model minority myth that affects Asian Americans and Pacific Islander[s], it makes it hard for [them] to find a community and people-of-color spaces,” Rago said.

She said the model minority myth stereotypes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to be perceived as achieving a higher degree of success compared to others.

“Because they are not viewed as having any issues, there’s not much discussion or resources for the AAPI community,” Rago said.

As a special projects intern for AACC, Phung leads Building Real Intergroup Dialogue for Greater Equality, or B.R.I.D.G.E., a safe-space group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning Asian and Asian American students on campus.

“I’m so incredibly proud of her,” said Ji Lee, director of the AACC. “It’s been a work in process for her just to accept that she is a good, beautiful person who does really good things.”

Phung believes her work experiences led to her nomination to speak at this year’s Mark Conference, an event intended to inspire students to leave a mark on the world.

Today, Phung finally feels happy and relieved — like a burden has been lifted off her shoulders.

“It feels like I’m walking, I’m not as depressed anymore … [I’m] gliding,” Phung said.

By Simon Galperin

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