Susan Huynh didn’t really know what to expect when she arrived at Carolina in 2016.
As a first-generation student, she explored many of the new academic opportunities open to her in Chapel Hill, but it wasn’t until she began working as a painting assistant at PlayMakers Theatre that she fully saw all that college had to offer.
What began as a simple on-campus job quickly became Huynh’s passion and source of relaxation.
“Once I got that job my first year, it helped set my schedule and helped my work/life balance a lot,” said Huynh, who remembers struggling to manage her time as a first-year student. “I got to wear a tie-dyed shirt and paint-splattered jeans. I loved the people there. I could shut my brain off and just paint.”
With a community of friends at PlayMakers to support her and the resources of the Carolina Covenant, Huynh is just a few months from graduating with a degree in psychology and history. But getting here wasn’t easy.
When she was young, Huynh’s parents encouraged her to go to college — something they didn’t have access to when they were growing up in Vietnam. It wasn’t until high school that she started to realize what a college education could mean for her.
“My parents had the idea that getting an education provides a better future and more opportunities,” said Huynh, who grew up in Raleigh. “It wasn’t until high school when I was like, ‘OK, I’m starting to get this vague sense of what college is.’ I had to talk to some of my teachers and a lot of my friends, like, ‘Hey, what is this college thing? How do I do it?’”
Despite the challenges of adjusting to college life, she took advantage of many opportunities Carolina has to offer. She worked as a biology lab teaching assistant for three semesters, discovered an interest in teaching and sought new artistic and cultural experiences.
Now, she volunteers with the Lookout Scholars to mentor younger first-generation students through some of the challenges she faced. The Lookout Scholars Program offers incoming first-generation students a rich cohort experience designed to help them become citizen leaders during their four years at Carolina.
“I decided to become a peer mentor because I had one, and I valued her a lot,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine someone coming in and feeling ready for college, but I want other students to know that once you get into the groove of things, you learn to lean on some people, and it gets easier. It gets better.”
One piece of advice she shares with her mentees is to find an outlet that helps relieve the stress of college life — like painting sets at PlayMakers has done for her.
Four years after first stepping foot on campus, Huynh still has that job as a painting assistant. It remains one of her favorite parts of her Carolina experience.
“I never would’ve imagined myself going to the theaters for fun or working in a theater scene shop,” she said. “This was the first time I’d been to musicals. I feel like if I didn’t come here, I never would have been exposed to that at all.”