Jesse Sochetna Chhay

Stories from South Seattle College: 13th Year program at Sealth/SSC means success for Cambodian student

Jesse Sochetna Chhay and his family moved to Seattle in 2006 from Cambodia with a single goal in mind: to obtain the best education possible.

“In this country, the most important thing is education and I believe the education system here is much better than in Cambodia,” Chhay said.  “We knew it would open up a lot of opportunities and great things in the future.”

Chhay said his English was poor when he started high school at Cleveland that year, forcing him to stay in his social shell much of the time.  On the inside, however, he was repeating a personal mantra over and over again.
“I started out with a language barrier and I was embarrassed sometimes because I couldn’t always express myself in English,” he explained.  “But I knew I needed to push and said to myself, ‘You are going to get better, you can do better than this and it will just take time and effort.’ ”

By the time his senior year arrived, Chhay’s English was improving and he was working hard - putting that mantra into practice - to position himself for higher education scholarships.  And that’s when he heard about the 13th Year Promise Scholarship Program at South Seattle College. 

That was 2008, the first year the scholarship was offered.  Today, 13th Year offers all graduating seniors from Cleveland, Chief Sealth and Rainier Beach High School the opportunity to attend one year of college tuition free, made possible by private donations the South Seattle College Foundation.

Chhay took advantage of the 13th Year opportunity along with a number of fellow Cleveland grads and next thing he knew he was immersed in the world he’d dreamed of, working towards an Associate’s degree in Computer Science at South.

Looking back on his time at South, Chhay said the most valuable part of his 13th Year experience was the homework help offered through the program, mentoring opportunities, and the camaraderie he developed with fellow scholars.

“South was a great place,” he said.  “It was really family-oriented.”

Congregating with other 13th Year scholars for homework help after school, he remembers, “We gathered around to talk about our experiences and also about how we could help each other out.”

As Chhay became increasingly more confident in his English, thanks in part to practicing with his friends at South, that shy shell he sometimes hid inside began to crack.  His time and effort were paying off.

A social juggernaut emerged as Chhay got involved in student government and began mentoring others at the SafeFutures Youth Center.  He graduated from South in 2010 and was immediately accepted into the University of Washington.  Three years later, he walked away – head held high - with a Bachelor’s Degree in Informatics – Human Computer Interaction. 

Since graduating, Chhay (now 23) has worked for Microsoft and now Amazon in seller support, “addressing chronic system issues, providing process improvements and developing internal documentation,” along with many other responsibilities. 

“I want to bring together people and technology,” he said. Asked where he sees himself in ten years, Chhay mused, “My dream job is to work in consulting, going to different companies and helping them build technology with great user experience.”

Chhay shows no signs of loosening his focus on the goals he set upon first stepping foot inside Cleveland High School as a newcomer to America.  “You are going to get better,” he told himself.  “You can do better than this and it will just take time and effort.”

“Those people who saw (my potential) in me, those people helped me get better,” Chhay said, “Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Since its inception in 2008, the South Foundation 13th Year Promise Scholarship has helped 300 students from Cleveland and Chief Sealth high schools realize their potential by ensuring their first year of college is covered.  Having just been announced at Rainier Beach High School in 2013, 60 students out of 100 possible graduates this June have already signed up to become 13th Year Scholars. 

The scholarship is based on research from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges that demonstrates a high school diploma and one year of college is the critical “tipping point” for a student to secure a living wage job and/or continue his or her education.

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