First-generation Penn Student David Thai Hones Leadership Skills


Junior David Thai, a first-generation student at the University of Pennsylvania, is used to working hard, taking responsibility and navigating disappointment and change.

The son of Vietnamese immigrants, Thai and his two brothers grew up in a small, two-bedroom brick row house in Point Breeze, a Philadelphia neighborhood just southeast of Penn’s campus. Thai’s parents spoke limited English and counted on him to make phone calls, send e-mails, solve problems and negotiate affordable options.

Since coming to Penn, that has not changed.

“After I started at Penn, my parents didn’t stop relying on me,” Thai, a biochemistry major in the School of Arts & Sciences, says. “Instead, they’d just make a list of things they needed me to do and waited for me to come home to handle those problems.”

At Penn, Thai has found a way to balance these demands on his time and has been able apply these gifts on campus.

He is an active member of the Pan-Asian American Community House where he has honed his leadership skills and gained a deeper understanding of his Asian-American identity.

“Much of my growth hasn’t necessarily been fostered in the classroom or a lecture hall,” Thai says, “but rather from my involvement with PAACH because it offers ways for students to contribute to the community.”

Early in his Penn experience, Thai acted as an undergraduate facilitator for PAACH’s Asian Students Promoting Identity, Reflection and Education, or ASPIRE, Program.

As a freshman, he enrolled as a mentee in the Promoting Enriching Experiences and Relationships, or PEER, Mentoring Program. After being paired with an upperclass mentor, he was introduced to many service and leadership activities.

During his sophomore year, he was selected as the PEER Mentoring Program’s chair and gained more leadership experience when he organized a day-long retreat in Washington, D.C., where Asian-American activists spoke with students.

“As a result of serving on PEER’s board, I have grown as a leader, and I’ve developed a better understanding of who I am,” Thai, who now serves as a PEER mentor, says.

It was then that he decided to explore his First-Generation/Low-Income, or FGLI, identity through the lens of being Asian-American.

As an Asian-American, FGLI student, Thai says that, when he first came to Penn and being sensitive to his family history, he struggled with the feeling that he was leaving his family behind, even though they were less than two miles away.

“I knew my parents immigrated thousands of miles to start new lives and to provide a better future for me and my brothers,” Thai says.

His parents had each had to flee Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975,  crossing the Pacific Ocean on small boats, escaping first to Malaysia, then to the Philippines and finally heading to Philadelphia.

As a child, Thai heard stories from his parents about how they had managed to survive by eating only rice, salt and scraps of meat. In Philadelphia, while struggling to learn English, his mother worked as a seamstress and picked berries in nearby fields on the weekends. His father landed a job selling seafood in a Korean-run store in Reading Terminal Market, where he still works today, more than 30 years later.

Growing up without health insurance, Thai knew first-hand what it’s like to wait for hours for basic medical treatment. At Penn, this experience guided his decision to volunteer with the University City Hospitality Coalition and the United Community Clinic, which provide free medical services to people in West Philadelphia.

“Volunteering gave me the opportunity to serve in low-income communities, more specifically in the clinics that resembled the ones that played an integral part of my childhood,” Thai says. “My experience has paved the way for me to build a better understanding of doctor-patient relationships, as well as gain fundamental skills that are critical for an aspiring physician.”

Soon, Thai began his work-study as an undergraduate research assistant for the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Good Lab.

“Working in a developmental biology lab connects my understanding of science to something more tangible, and I have gotten a taste of what a career in scientific research entails.”

Thai says he has learned both from the opportunities Penn has presented him as well as from his failures.

“I have failed exams. I’ve been rejected from internship opportunities. I have hit ‘rock bottom’ almost every semester, and I have been on the edge of giving up,” Thai says. “But, my family, friends and mentors give me the strength to stand back up.”

Through PAACH, Thai is also helping others learn from his failures.

He co-founded a supportive network of Asian-American students at Penn who identify as FGLI. Named after a Japanese proverb, “7/8,” which says, “You fall down seven times, stand up eight,” the group discusses issues that are specific to the FGLI Asian-American community and ways they can support each other.

“It draws on our resiliency, strength and courage as FGLI students,” Thai says. “Through this, we strive to de-homogenize the misconception that Asian-Americans are all the same, while supporting our students in their endeavors.”

In addition, Thai is one of four student panelists featured in “How to Apply to College,” a massive open online course that launches in February.

In the MOOC, Thai will lend his perspective as a first-generation student whose college-application process was primarily based in Google searches and a combination of trial and error to find scholarships and other sources of funding and also on balancing school with family obligations while taking advantage of cultural resources on campus, like PAACH and the Greenfield Intercultural Center.

With two-and-a-half years at Penn under his belt, Thai is focused on helping his education help others and propelling his family forward.

“Whatever I accomplish at Penn and beyond will not only be a testament to my upbringing but also will bring my parents toward finally getting the rest they deserve.”


David Thai. Photo: Brian J Li