UPDATED:  August 30, 2009 11:59 PM
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A Fresh Start for APIASF Scholar Aretha Chum

By: Jennie L. Ilustre 

September will be just another month for many, but not for Cambodian American Aretha Chum. For her, it’s a turning point. She will be the first in her family to go to college on a scholarship of $2,500 for the first year. Aretha enters the University of Maryland, College Park as a freshman, majoring in biology. She wants to be a pharmacist someday.

Aretha is one of 225 scholars for 2009-1010 of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, based in the nation’s capital. Over 3,000 students across the nation and the US territories applied for the scholarships.

“With this scholarship, I know I just broke a cycle,” she said, recalling life’s ups and downs. “I’m so excited! I told myself, ‘Okay, things are going good for me now. Now I can focus on my education. Also, my parents were refugees from the Khmer Rouge. When they came here, they did not have anything, they did not know anyone. They did not have this opportunity.”

It was tough for everyone in the beginning. Her mom, Rosa Prak, worked two or three jobs, usually at convenience stores. Eventually, her parents were able to buy a beer, wine and deli store in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Twenty years later, the family business still survives.

It would have been nice if her father, Sam An Chum, a former schoolteacher in Cambodia, were still around. When Aretha told her mom the news about getting the scholarship, she said, “She started crying.”

Her voice cracked a bit as she recalled: “After my father passed away three years ago, it was really difficult for me and my mom. It had something to do with sorting out the store’s financial records. I also had to help my mom in the weekend shift, working on Saturdays and Sundays till midnight. I still help out on weekends.”

Until her dad passed away, the store was a fun, magical place. She remembers a Lotto customer who asked her to suggest five numbers. He bought three tickets, and gave her one. The ticket won $300. She was then a child of six. Aretha has a half-sister and a half-brother.

College-bound Aretha had applied for a bunch of scholarships. Her mom taught her “education is the key” to a successful life. In a lengthy phone interview from her home in Gaithersburg, Maryland, she recalled: “My parents always told me to try harder than the others. I was born and raised here, and growing up, I felt like an underdog. I always felt that I have to compete and come on top. But my parents told me not to let being a minority stop me from achieving my dreams.” 


APIASF (www.apiasf.org), is the nation’s largest 501c(3) non-profit organization that provides scholarships to deserving Asian and Pacific Islander Americans with financial need. Since 2003, APIASF has distributed over $2.4 million to 1,075 students.

“I’m extremely proud of all of our scholars, and Aretha is no exception,” said APIASF President and Executive Director Neil Horikoshi in an email. “She has shown a tremendous amount of maturity for her age in her appreciation of education. She’s an accomplished student, and I know she will achieve great success throughout her college career.”

He added: “Through her volunteer work, she has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to her community, and she is a wonderful role model for other students. I am honored that APIASF is able to help Aretha purse her dream of a college education.”

Indeed, busy as she was with her studies and family chores, Aretha found time for community work. She was a volunteer at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital’s Medical Records office from 2005 to 2006, while at the same time helping out as an aide at Rosemont Elementary School’s Bar-T Program. In 2007-2008, she was a volunteer at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital’s orthopedics department.

“Aretha participated in our high school internship program and no one has ever been as excited to learn as she was,” said Ken Karbeling, general manager of American Reprographics, Inc. “She was a tremendous asset to our company and extremely capable. I know that she will do well in her future career.”

“Aretha worked with our accounting team and picked things up very fast,” he added. “She was eager to learn new things and quick to implement them.”

Academic achievement

Aside from her determination to succeed, Aretha has followed a system that works for her. When preparing for an exam, she said she would “redo the notes over, like learning the lessons for the first time.” She once had two or three notebooks on a science subject.

She was a consistent scholar at Gaithersburg High School. She was the recipient of the Honor Roll Award from 2005 to 2009, the Principal’s Award for Academic Excellence (2005-2008) and the President’s Education Awards Program in recognition of Outstanding Academic Excellence (2009). She was a member of La Societe Honoraire de Francais (French Honor Society) and the National Honor Society. In 2008, CollegeBoard named her AP Scholar with Honor Award, in recognition of exemplary college-level achievement on Advanced Placement (AP) Program Examinations.

Science has always fascinated her, and it shows in her awards. These included the National Youth Leadership Forum Certificate of Achievement In Recognition of Academic Success and Commitment to the Field of Medicine (2007); Gaithersburg High School’s Outstanding Performance in Anatomy and Physiology (2008-2009), and Gaithersburg High School Academic Excellence in the Sciences (2008-2009).




She also engaged in extra-curricular activities. From 2005-2009, she was the treasurer of the Asian American Club and the Signature Science Academy, and a member of the Interact Club and Academy of Science and Technology. She also joined the International Club, Science Club, It’s Academic and Annual Old Towne Day with the Interact Club.


Oral history

In an email, Aretha talked about her family at length. “I asked my mom about the Khmer Rouge regime, and she told me she escaped on February 2, 1980. She and the rest of my family traveled 16 days on a truck carrying supplies to the Cambodian border. From there, she walked to a Thailand refuge camp. During the Khmer Rouge regime, my mother lost one brother. My mom said they lost him in the crowded streets, as Pol Pot’s army forced people out of their homes in the capital city Phnom Penh. Two of her sons died due to malnutrition. Her mother also died during this horrific time period.

“Our family was sponsored by my uncle who arrived in the US in the early ‘70s and by a church. My mother arrived in the US on September 8, 1980. When my mother arrived in Maryland, she worked at 7-11 store for five years, alongside Solarex for two years. Upon arrival, all ten members of my family lived with my uncle in his single apartment unit. Soon after, the church that helped sponsor my parents to the US relocated my family to a house in Aspen Hill, Maryland.

“When Pou (Uncle) came here, he did not have anything. He did not have a house, he did not know anybody. But he made something of himself. He went to study at American University. He went to Harvard. Now, he’s a minister in Cambodia. It’s a success story that I want to duplicate.”


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