Her classwork, internships and jobs are giving Monica Kong the skills she needs to become a health care provider.
The River Hawk Scholars Academy (RHSA), a support program for first-generation college students, is giving her the confidence to succeed – and to lead.
Kong’s parents, who immigrated from Cambodia, passed on their work ethic. They’re also determined to pay for as much of her college education as they can.
But they made it clear while she was still in high school in Dracut, Massachusetts, that she would have to figure out everything else about college on her own, from financial aid to her academic and career pathway, she says.
When she arrived at UMass Lowell, she felt like she didn’t really belong. But through the RHSA, she found the help and affirmation from student, faculty and staff mentors that she needed to grow and thrive.
“In the culture I grew up in, with people who are older than you or have more education than you, you’re supposed to respect them and demonstrate that by making yourself smaller. I had a hard time going to office hours because I felt like asking questions was ‘bothering’ people,” she says. “The RHSA empowered me not only as a student, but as a leader and a person who wants to serve the community.”
Kong started out as a biology major, thinking that she would become a physician assistant. She didn’t enjoy her classes, though.
Uncertain about her path and still suffering from “impostor syndrome,” she says, she decided to go through Leaders in Action training, a requirement to be a peer leader who mentors new first-gen students in the RHSA.
She calls the training with then-Director of Student Affairs Shaima Ragab “life-changing.” When Kong applied to become an RHSA peer leader, she was accepted.
“Shaima was there to listen to the students and empower us and tell us that our voices mattered on the campus and in the community,” Kong says. “I wanted to help other first-gen students gain more confidence and be kinder to themselves.”
As a sophomore, she changed her major to public health while pursuing a minor in applied biomedical sciences. When she studied to be a home health care aide at Middlesex Community College during the pandemic summer of 2020, she realized that while she still wanted to work in health care, “I’m not comfortable with putting my hands on patients.”
She began exploring other careers. Through a network of Asian American campus clubs in which she was active, she learned about fellowships with the nonprofit Asian American Women’s Political Initiative that would allow her to explore the policy side of public health.
The group awarded Kong a fellowship in the spring semester of her junior year and trained her in public advocacy and public service as well as practical career skills. The fellowship also supported Kong in a legislative policy internship with Massachusetts state Rep. Tram Nguyen, for whom she did research on student mental health, hate crimes against Asian Americans and COVID-19 vaccine access.
That aligned not only with her coursework in public health, but with her service as a member of the student advisory board for UMatter2, a mental health education and outreach initiative on campus that aims to reduce the stigma around getting help for depression, anxiety and other issues.
“Mental health doesn’t always need to be a touchy subject,” Kong says. “People need check-ups, just like they do for their physical health. The hardest thing about counseling is just stepping through the front door.”
The RHSA encourages students to contribute to the campus community, and Kong – now a senior and team leader for other peer leaders in the RHSA – has stepped up by serving on the university’s First-generation Working Group.
She also has leadership roles in multiple clubs: She is president of Tri-Alpha, the new campus chapter of a national honors society for first-generation college students; vice president of the Cambodian American Students Association; and co-chair of the social committee for Omicron Delta Kappa, a leadership honor society.
And by working as a mammography assistant at Lowell General Hospital, taking biology and health sciences classes in genetics, and attending a conference on genetic counseling, she thinks she’s finally narrowed down her career goal. She’s now looking into graduate programs in genetic counseling.
“Getting mammograms is a public health intervention,” she says, explaining how everything connects in her mind. “Women are a vulnerable population, genetics plays a role in breast cancer and other cancers that affect women, and there’s a specialty within genetic counseling for oncology in general.”