Jenny V. Ha, a National Honor Society (NHS) scholarship recipient, is the Legislative Affairs Subcommittee chair and youngest serving board member on the University of Southern California (USC)Norman Topping Student Aid Fund—a student-led initiative to provide financial and academic support to high-needs students. She is currently a freshman majoring in sociology and pursuing double minors in public policy and social entrepreneurship at USC in Los Angeles, and serves as the programming chair of her residence hall and writing mentor to students at James A. Foshay Learning Center. Ha has also worked with Michelle Obama’s Better Make Room higher education initiative and was a student ambassador for the U.S. National Security Language Initiative for Youth program.

Advise: The Better Make Room campaign is part of Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, which aims to inspire every student in the United States to complete their education past high school. Why did the goal of this program resonate with you? What made you want to be a part of it?

Ha: I think I was a junior when I first applied to become involved with the program, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was passionate about education, but I hadn’t realized the scale of something like this. At the time I wanted to encourage kids to go to college, but after being on the board, I realized there’s so much more to it than that. There are different paths you can take; not everyone has to go to college. College fit and higher education are important, but knowing you have options is a really big part of it. I went to a Title I school that was very underresourced. I’m a first-generation college student and knowing I had a support system really resonated with me. I started reaching out to schools like mine in the surrounding area, and we did mentoring sessions with them; I talked with other leaders and encouraged them to start their own chapters. It was so great to help people in situations similar to my own.

Advise: You are the daughter of two Vietnamese immigrants. How has that shaped your perspective on important issues facing students today?

Ha: The fact that my parents were refugees and that I’m a first-generation student really drove my passion for educational equity. I think that it’s really important for me to provide an inclusive community, and spread inclusive language and compassion, and remain understanding. People of color and underrepresented and disenfranchised communities are really struggling right now because of the political climate. Knowing what my parents went through and the opinions surrounding immigration right now really informs my opinions around creating social change. I am living my parents’ passion, but that correlates with mine, so I’m sort of providing a mirror for them. I know they want the best for me, so I’m doing what I can to keep them well-informed. Now that they’re citizens they can vote, but I need to translate their options for them. I try to stay as neutral as I can.

Advise: Why is educational equity so important to you?

Ha: My school was so underresourced and the amount and frequency of staff turnaround was huge. Our NHS chapter and student council never had much funding for events—we didn’t even have enough for textbooks. We had overcrowded classrooms—some programs had to be cut that were offered the previous year because of overflow or teachers quitting, and we couldn’t afford to rehire, etc. There was also a big disproportionate counselor-to-student ratio. Their role is so important, especially when college planning becomes a thing. [Counselors] were so bogged down with administrative tasks that they couldn’t work to the best of their abilities, either. Those are problems that go into education policy that I’d like to solve.

Advise: What are the best ways for students to serve their communities and really make a difference? 

Ha: I think the best way is to just do it. It sounds really basic, but I think the hardest part is just getting started because people will tell you what you can and can’t do and that you’re too young to matter. You need to convince yourself and be ready to wholeheartedly commit to making an impact in your community. It’s easier when you can find a mentor or background or experience in what you want to do so someone can encourage you to keep going if you’re struggling with starting. Identify the issues in your community to start something that will be impactful. You really need to do your research and be confident enough to start and just remember that you can do it—no matter what anyone says.

Advise: What was your most impactful experience during your years in student council and NHS?

Ha: NHS was a huge support system for me that I could rely on whenever I was feeling stressed about my academics. My connections there were impactful. For NatStuCo, the results really meant a lot to me. We saw people participate and increased school spirit and the feedback we got was really rewarding. School spirit can be easily overlooked, but it’s really crucial to the academic environment and motivating students. That really impacted me by seeing how our school was being uplifted by the student council and to see other people who never thought about joining become a member the next year. NHS and NatStuCo would sometimes team up on activities, so in a way, both were a good representation of what our school was, despite where we were demographically as an inner-city school. Both organizations really helped build a positive atmosphere.

Advise: What did becoming an NHS scholarship recipient mean to you? 

Ha: I would not be where I am today without the NHS scholarship. I didn’t expect to get it at all! I was just so used to being financially insecure having been around that environment for so long and being frugal so long, so I figured I’d apply to some schools for fun, never thinking I’d be able to possibly afford tuition. But being able to come out here to my top choice school is such a big deal, and it really helps me to be more motivated to continue creating social change. I’m so grateful for the NHS scholarship.

Advise: Was there a particular teacher or adviser who influenced or inspired you?

Ha: I had this one teacher in seventh grade, then had him again in eighth and ninth grade, named Brian Jones. I actually had him for six years. [Laughs.] He keeps following me! He’s kinda like my school dad. He’s really impacted me. Every time he taught was very hands-on and very discussion-based, so I always learned from my peers. He also pushed me out of my comfort zone and was a great mentor, and I don’t think he realized that until sophomore year when I started asking for recommendations. I can see him always trying to push students outside of their comfort zones, and he’s really someone I look up to because he’s so motivated for the community as well. He’s so passionate, I just switched on with his influence. He’s very interested in learning and that sparks an interest in his students. I mirror his work ethic, and everything he does is with intention and it’s always meaningful. He’s actually an alumnus of my school district, so he has a really deep connection to the school. He’s there for those students. He’s really shaped me into who I’ve become today.

Advise: What would be your “elevator pitch” to encourage students to continue their education beyond high school?

Ha: I think logistically students know a degree will offer them more opportunities because of how society has shaped the workforce. But learning all these things and knowing how to apply them can just change your life. Not only does this make students a more competitive applicant for the workforce and provide their family better opportunities, it improves their sense of belonging to the community and makes them a better citizen. So, it’s just really rewarding when you know more things about certain subjects that you can apply directly to issues you care about. Learning how to interact with everyone and learning from them is a great reason to continue education after high school. It’s an interconnected relationship between yourself, your educational institution, and the workforce. Finding your fit is super important.

Advise: What is the best concluding piece of advice you can give today’s students?

Ha: I think the best piece of advice is to always believe in yourself and remember there are other people who believe in you more than you do. Find a mentor who can help you and uplift you during low times, because everyone has times where they are unsure of themselves. Know what your abilities are and don’t let outside forces creep into your head. Don’t lose your path. —