‘Farfetched Dream,’ Cambodia to Harvard, Comes True
LOWELL -- The teacher asks then-9-year-old Pechthida Kim, “What’s 4 times 3?”
The Greenhalge Elementary School student, hearing the word “times,” looks up at the clock.
Arriving from Cambodia months earlier, the elementary school student answers with the time of day.
“I remember the misunderstandings,” Kim, now 18, recalled last week. “The language barrier was definitely difficult to overcome. It was very overwhelming.”
She was sent to summer school.
She worked hard at getting used to English.
And she succeeded -- so much that now she’s heading to the world’s most prestigious university.
Kim, the salutatorian of the most recent Lowell High School graduating class and with a perfect SAT score on her resume, is bound for Harvard University on a full scholarship.
Harvard was the only American college she knew of when growing up in Cambodia.
“It was such a farfetched dream for me back then,” she said. “I really didn’t think it was possible as a 9-year-old, and now I’m here.”
Kim and her mother left Cambodia in 2009. Her mother, Sokuntheary Sem, had remarried, bringing them to America.
Starting at Greenhalge Elementary School with very little English, she moved on to Robinson Middle School and picked up the language bit by bit.
Kim then successfully tested into the highly-competitive and rigorous Latin Lyceum program at Lowell High School. She was with the same group of 60 students for four years.
“It was like a little family,” Kim said. “I started to feel more comfortable to contribute to the class and speak up.”
She also joined the high school’s Air Force Junior ROTC, where she found a support system.
Kim made close friends there, and said the master sergeant became a “father figure” for her.
“It really helped me build a sense of identity for myself,” she said. “It became my home.”
Before 2016, Kim says she had only identified as a Cambodian. Then she and her mother got their U.S. citizenship in 2016.
“I was trying to find out what it meant to be an American,” Kim said. “Being in ROTC, on the drill team and contributing to the community through community service, it helped me realize there was a balance between the two.
“Being American meant helping the people around you,” she added.
Kim was the ROTC’s logistic group commander on the drill team, where she was in charge of the equipment and uniforms for the program.
She then became the color guard commander, and held the American flag during a 7-minute routine.
“That was a special position for me,” Kim said. “Being able to hold the American flag and being proud to say I’m an American.”
Kevin Casilli, Lowell’s master sergeant, was that father figure for Kim.
Since joining the Lowell program 15 years ago, he said there have been very few students who match Kim’s leadership, dedication and perseverance.
“She’s just an incredible young lady who has worked so hard for everything she has today,” Casilli said. “She never took anything for granted, and dedicated her life to her academics and taking care of others.”
Kim wants to be a physician, specifically a cardiologist, she said.
After taking anatomy in her sophomore year, she recalls thinking how the cardiovascular system was “really cool.”
“I just fell in love with the human body,” Kim said.
During her youth in Cambodia, she was raised by her mother, aunt, grandmother and uncle. Those years were really special, she recalled, helping shape who she is today.
She had lost that connection with them since coming to America, but was able to visit Cambodia this summer and reconnect.
“It gives me more motivation to work hard in the future,” she said after visiting them.
That close-knit family is key for Kim. While studying at Harvard, she wants to visit her mother every weekend in Lowell.
When her mother was asked about Kim’s accomplishments and enrolling at Harvard, Kim translated from Cambodian to English: “She’s proud of me for getting into Harvard, and for being obedient to her. That’s important.”
Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.