Kuong Ly wants to be known not only for where he comes from, but for where he’s going.
UCLA School of Law's Kuong Ly wants his immigrant success story to become the norm, not the exception.
The second-year UCLA School of Law student was born in a refugee camp in Vietnam, the child of parents who survived Cambodian dictator Pol Pot’s killing fields in the 1970s. His family resettled as refugees outside Boston in 1990 and lived in public housing, relying on welfare and food stamps.
Despite these disadvantages, Ly excelled in a rigorous public school while working to help support his family, went to Boston College and graduate school in England on scholarships, and, earlier this year, earned a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship. It’s awarded to the most accomplished and promising Americans with immigrant backgrounds.
Although Ly's inspiring story follows the classic American tale of how a refugee overcomes odds to achieve success, Ly knows his story is unfinished, and he is determined to shape a much larger narrative.
"I’ve experienced a lot of issues that get debated by policymakers, and, even though the American dream has become more out of reach for most Americans, I feel like my journey is an example of how people can excel when society is willing to invest," Ly said. "But I’m the exception right now, not the standard. The standard needs to change."
It’s that kind of commitment that earned Ly the Soros fellowship. Winners of the annual prize must demonstrate accomplishments that show "creativity, originality and initiative in light of the challenges and opportunities that have been part of the applicant’s immigration story." Cynthia He, who is in the UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program pursuing an M.D. and Ph.D. in neuroscience and investigating how the brain develops in an inherited form of autism, also won a Soros fellowship this year. Recipients receive tuition and stipend assistance of up to $90,000 to fund their graduate education. This year, Ly was one of the 30 winners out of more than 1,000 applicants nationwide.
Ly and his family were brought to the United States by a religious resettlement organization in the Boston suburb of Lexington. Growing up as a refugee in an affluent, mostly white area was difficult. Ly said that he and his family faced discrimination and that some of his teachers weren’t always prepared for the challenges new immigrants faced.
"The public education system isn’t trained to handle a kid who has only known war and poverty before stepping foot into a classroom for the first time," Ly said. "How do you teach a kid to read when there are no books in his household? How do you have a parent-teacher conference when the parents don’t have the time to meet with the teacher [because they have to work] or don’t speak English?"
But Ly turned apparent disadvantages into opportunities. Going to a high school where everyone was expected to attend college helped Ly realize the importance of higher education, even though college wasn’t a priority for his parents. Though they were loving and supportive, they were preoccupied with meeting the family’s basic needs, he said.
"Not dropping out of school was probably good enough," said Ly, noting that, among the population of resettled Cambodian refugees in the United States, many teens end up dropping out of school, which makes them more likely to have run-ins with the law.
And while the vast majority of his high school classmates didn’t need to work, Ly typically put in more than 25 hours a week in office jobs to help support his family. Having to work for everything instilled a focused determination and exposed him to experiences that shaped his future and ultimately led him to UCLA.
After graduating from high school, Ly said that he wasn't ready for college and wanted to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. So he spent a year working for the Asian Community Development Corporation as an affordable housing advocate in Boston's Chinatown, a densely populated, high-poverty neighborhood.
"The year between high school and college … [that] experience allowed me to be serious about my studies when I began at Boston College," Ly said. "I knew the moment I stepped onto campus that I was going to end up pursuing a life of public service fighting for social justice." Ly continued working as a community organizer during his first two years at Boston College, where he majored in philosophy. Working on affordable housing, Ly saw how people who were on government assistance couldn’t afford to buy healthier food, thereby compounding their poverty with chronic health problems.
During his junior and senior years, he worked as a research assistant for the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, which focuses much of its research on a Cambodian American community in Massachusetts. Building on that experience, Ly later worked for a nonprofit that helped get health care reform passed in Massachusetts. That state law became a model for the Affordable Care Act.
Wanting to further his education, Ly won a coveted British Marshall Scholarship and earned master’s degrees from the University of Essex in international human rights law and the University of Cambridge in international relations.
While in graduate school, Ly worked as an intern in the International Co-Prosecutor’s Office at the U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunals. After Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, between 1.7 million and 2 million Cambodians were executed or died from disease and starvation. In a 2010 op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, Ly blasted the court for sentencing a senior Khmer Rouge leader to just 18 years for his role in killing more than 12,000 people. The court subsequently changed the man’s punishment to a life sentence.
"This work was an homage to my late father," Ly said. "What he endured and what my parents suffered as refugees was somehow put to rest." Ly’s father passed away from cancer during Ly’s first year in England, so when he finished his graduate studies, he returned to Boston and worked for an educational foundation. After more than a decade of advocating for affordable housing, health care access and educational equality, law school was a natural next step, Ly said.
As Ly was researching law schools, he learned of UCLA School of Law’s David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy and Critical Race Studies program, the only law school program of its kind in the country. "It became clear that UCLA was the best law school for social justice, racial justice and equity work," Ly said. These two programs attracted like-minded law students with a desire to use their education, intellect and experience to help those who need it most.
This summer he worked for the state of Massachusetts advocating for people who’d experienced workplace discrimination, sexual harassment or wrongful termination and couldn’t afford legal representation. Once he finishes law school, Ly said that he plans to return to Boston to continue to work for social justice and combat inequality. Ly said his experiences of growing up as a refugee adds a critical voice to the public conversation about poverty and inequality in America.
"People in my community are still struggling to get by," Ly said. "My identity and experience informs what I do and what I want to do. My story isn’t one solely of success; it’s a story of problems that still exist and that we as a society need to work together to find better solutions."