Editor's Note: The following letter was written by Tiffany Ong, a member of Wake Forest School of Medicine’s MD Class of 2024, to those who made her medical education possible. Ong received the MD Class of 1952 Scholarship, established by alumni members of that class, as well as the Terrell and Nancy Estes Family Scholarship and the Ellen and Andrew Schindler Medical Scholarship. Ong’s letter describes her family’s remarkable journey that led her to medical school and reflects the deep gratitude that scholarship support inspires.
There has been many a time where I sat down at my desk to write this letter to you, but too often I was unable to put thoughts into words. How does one convey her deepest gratitude to someone that so graciously helped pave her way into medical school? I cannot thank you sincerely enough for your generosity that allows students like myself to pursue medicine. I was always taught that every little bit counts — and this mantra never rang more true than now. I have nothing to offer in return but my genuine appreciation and to share with you my story, which has shaped my passion to embark on this journey to one day join in this sacred career.
To share a little bit about me, I was born and raised in a suburb called West Covina, which is about an hour outside of Los Angeles, California. As a local, I subsequently studied at UCLA with a major in psychobiology. I am what you call a true Californian — I love sunny skies, beaches, tacos, avocados, and despise traffic (thankfully, Winston-Salem doesn’t have much of that going on!). Surfing — not so much, as I can barely stay afloat in a body of water. As a city dweller, I love exploring the nooks and crannies of what a town has to offer, and so far in Winston-Salem, the sights and people have been nothing short of amazing.
But much more than my ZIP code, I am the daughter of two courageous Vietnamese immigrants. In his early 20s, my father had his sights on becoming a physician and attempted to go to medical school in Vietnam — only to have his dreams ripped away when he was suddenly enlisted to fight for the South Vietnam army during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, my father was one of thousands that surrendered to the North. He was a prisoner of war for eight years, tortured and abused in a reeducation camp. Eight years without him, my mother singlehandedly took care of four of my older siblings at that time — all while enduring backlash from my father’s side of the family, bribing communist generals to see my father once in a blue moon and enduring the passing of both my grandparents whom I never got to meet.
When my family was sponsored to come to the United States in 1991, my parents were saddened to leave the country they had loved (and continue to love), yet understood that Vietnam was no longer what it used to be. America was the land of opportunity.
But with little money and an already established family, my parents had no choice but to find work immediately to put food on the table, rather than to pursue education to develop skill sets for a better life. Ever since I was born, my parents have been working as seamstresses in sweatshop conditions in East LA. My father is still working and imminently reaching 80 years old with no savings or assets. We have rented homes all my life, supported with nothing else but food stamps and Medicaid. Suffice to say, the lifetime of pain and suffering my family has gone through continues to this day. Yet, we are hardworking and most of all, appreciative. Appreciative that things could have been worse. Appreciative that we still have each other, and that I was taught to love and be kind.
Though it has been difficult to grow up in financial insecurity, my circumstance has allowed me to see things in a different lens. There are things that come with poverty. For instance, my parents are incredibly reluctant and distrustful of the health care system. In the end, I cannot fault them for their lack of medical knowledge; however, it was hard attempting to resolve countless difficult situations growing up. With my father being non-compliant with his diabetic medication and my mother furthering this narrative by going so far as to hide medications, I was certainly not brought up in an environment where health was upheld. Ironing burns and cuts from sewing were common in my household, but bandaged with leftover fabric and brushed off as “no big deal.” The list goes on, but the resistance and neglect of their health gradually compelled me to learn more about medicine and be a stronger advocate with every “no” from my parents when urging them to seek medical attention. Conversations with them over the years have been incredibly frustrating, but these are conversations worth having — not just for my family, but ultimately for my community.
My resolve to pursue this field came from the roots of my background. I am incredibly proud of where I come from, but in all honesty, sometimes I find myself feeling like my experiences make me different—an outsider, almost—in this profession. I wonder if the trials and tribulations conditioned me to feel undeserving of where I am today.
But to receive scholarship support like this shows that there are people believing in me and my ability to be the physician I aspire to be—someone compassionate, competent and culturally sensitive. Thank you for supporting me in my personal and professional development. Both my parents sincerely thank you from the bottom of their hearts for aiding me in a way they so wished they could. I am deeply honored to have been chosen for these scholarships and hope to make you proud!Sincerely,
Wake Forest School of Medicine
MD Class of 2024