Portrait of resilience: URI graduate Tinh Huynh overcomes hardship, wins academic scholarship to medical school in Vermont

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KINGSTON, R.I. – May 21, 2014 – Rewind to nine years ago and Tinh Huynh is at his house in Houston waiting for his brother to arrive when the cell phone rings. His father is on the other line: Thanh is dead.

Thanh had been shot before, but always survived. Not this time. The horrible news hits hard. Tinh is angry for losing his big brother to “senseless” gang violence and makes a pact with himself that he will never go down the same path.

Fast forward to 2014 and the University of Rhode Island graduate is getting ready to start medical school at The University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington, Vt. He’s thinking about becoming a neurosurgeon.

“Education is huge,” says Tinh, of Pawtucket. “It’s the best way to escape poverty and to stay out of poverty.”

Tinh’s story begins 24 years ago in Fort Smith, Ark., where he was born to Vietnamese refugees, Hoang Huynh and Mimi Truong, who left the country as teenagers in search of the proverbial better life in America.

What they found was grinding poverty. His parents, who dropped out of grade school in Vietnam, worked in a Tyson chicken factory. Tinh made do with one pair of shoes a year. Meals were cheap fast food.

By the time he was 17, Tinh had changed schools eight times so his parents could find new jobs. Biloxi, Miss., Rahway, N.J., San Jose, Calif., and Houston were just a few of his stops. Once, the family slept in the back room of a cousin’s apartment. “My parents kept moving because we weren’t financially stable,” he says. “They needed to find jobs to support us.”

That peripatetic life took its toll. It was hard for Tinh to establish any continuity with his studies and make long-term friends. But it was Thanh who was affected the most. He got mixed up with gangs.

Thanh survived two shootings – one witnessed by Tinh when he was only 12 – before the April 4, 2005 attack that ended his life at 18. “It was horrible,” says Tinh. “I was devastated. It was like losing my superhero.”

After finishing high school in Houston, Tinh moved to Pawtucket with his parents and younger brother, Tommy. On new ground, Tinh decided to test his mind. His teachers back in Texas had told him he had a knack for math, so he enrolled at the Community College of Rhode Island, taking a full load of advanced math and science courses to earn his associate’s degree.

Initially, he wanted to be a pharmacist, but soon changed course. “I thought being a doctor would put me in a position to be on the front lines helping people,” he says. He transferred to URI in 2009 and took two years of classes to prepare for medical school.

After graduating summa cum laude in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, Tinh worked as a manicurist at his parents’ nail salon in Providence while studying for the MCATs, the medical school admissions test. He also volunteered at the Rhode Island Free Clinic in Providence and, in 2012, became an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer at the clinic, researching patient health outcomes.

He credits URI’s Health Professions Advisory Committee, which provides guidance to students applying to medical school, with helping him achieve his dream. The committee helped him prepare his medical school applications and held mock interviews. “Everyone did a lot for me,” he says. “The committee was amazing.”

He’ll head to Vermont in the fall. Meanwhile, he’s working as an emergency medical technician in Warwick, shadowing doctors at Rhode Island Hospital and volunteering as a Big Brother in Pawtucket.

“I have a ‘little brother’ I hang out with whenever I can,” says Tinh. “He grew up in the same conditions I did so I feel like I can be a role model to him.”

Paying for medical school will be easier thanks to a generous merit scholarship he received from the school. “I was ecstatic when I found out,” Tinh says. “All my hard work has finally paid off.”

He is grateful to URI for giving him so many opportunities to excel. “I’m definitely going to wear my URI sweatshirt when I’m in Vermont,” he says. “URI gave me a chance to change my life.”

Becoming a doctor will make his journey worthwhile, he says. “I want to make my parents proud,” he says. “I want them to look at me and say, ‘This is why we came to America.’ ” Good things are happening in their lives. His mother got her high school degree, and his brother Tommy is bringing home high honors in high school. The lost brother is always in their thoughts. Tinh carries his wallet, and memories.

Portrait of Resilience: Tinh Huynh and his mother, Mimi Truong, and brother, Tommy Huynh, 16. Tinh, a 2011 graduate of the University of Rhode Island, received a generous scholarship to attend the University of Vermont College of Medicine this fall. Photo courtesy of Tinh Huynh. Shown above from left to right.