CORVALLIS - It's a long way from refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines to commencement ceremonies at Oregon State University, but that winding path has led SreyRam Kuy to the realization that it's her calling in life to help others.
For the past four years, Kuy has drawn on her life experiences as she's majored in philosophy and microbiology at OSU. She has successfully integrated primary medicine, philosophy, scientific research, politics and public policy into an education that is leading her to Washington, D.C. this summer where she has earned a prestigious internship with the Barbara Jordan Congressional Scholars Program. There she will work with Sen. Tom Harkin's office on national health care policy issues.
Kuy is graduating this Sunday, June 11, from OSU in a ceremony beginning at 2 p.m. in Gill Coliseum. The OSU commencement will be telecast live on Oregon Public Broadcasting.
In the fall, Kuy will start medical school at Oregon Health Sciences University where she will study primary care medicine. But it was a trip of self-discovery to an orphanage and clinic in Mexico following her senior year in high school that led Kuy to the realization that her goal in life was to help the less fortunate.
"Right after high school graduation I left for a summer stint volunteering at an orphanage and clinic in Mexico," she said. "Doing outreach work in the surrounding migrant labor camps I saw the human faces of hunger and smelled the physical stench of poverty. It wasn't new. I had lived it as a child."
As she mopped floors in the clinic and pulled weeds in the adjacent orchard, Kuy had a chance to crawl into her thoughts and mull over her life. She remembered her family's escape from Cambodia and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge communist regime. As a small child, she spent several years in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before her family moved to Corvallis.
Her mom, Sovanna Soeung, worked as a teacher and her father, Prakap Kuy, was an engineer, before they fled Cambodia. After their arrival in Corvallis, they took jobs as janitors.
"I really appreciate what my parents, particularly my mom, did for my sister and me," Kuy said. "My mom is amazing. She's the most wonderful, and probably overworked, mother in the world. My mom usually held two or three jobs at a time and yet always managed to be a supportive, encouraging and unconditionally loving mother. Everything that I am, and everything that I hope to be, I owe to my mom."
Kuy would listen to her mother weave tales as the family worked in the fields of the Willamette Valley picking fruits and vegetables. She would tell stories of incidents of compassion in the general nightmare of the Khmer Rouge regime and Cambodian folklore previously told by Kuy's grandfather.
"She has an incredible knack for storytelling," Kuy said.
Kuy graduated as valedictorian from Crescent Valley High School in 1996 and received a scholarship to Harvard but her dad was suffering from cancer and passed away a month before graduation. Kuy reevaluated her priorities and decided that her family was most important so she enrolled at OSU.
"It was one of the best decisions I've made," Kuy said. "I feel that I'll be leaving OSU with a very strong academic background. However, it's been more than just the academic education. The faculty are the main reasons why I say attending OSU has been one of the best decisions I've made. Several of my teachers have gone far beyond average. They have been wonderful teachers, caring advisers, inspiring mentors, and also friends."
Lani Roberts, senior instructor in the Philosophy Department and Kuy's adviser in philosophy, said knowing SreyRam Kuy has been inspirational.
"My hope and confidence in her future and ours is nurtured not only by her technical and intellectual talents and skills but by her deeply felt commitment to use her education to better our human community," Roberts said. "I could not admire her more greatly on any count."
At OSU, Kuy participated in a number of undergraduate research projects. She dissected pear, raspberry and strawberry meristems for cryopreservation as part of a project to preserve the diversity of agricultural plants. She also examined taxol extracts, which have the potential to be used as natural insecticide. In addition, Kuy worked on a baculoviral research project and another project examining the photodissociation of cyanogen bromide (BrCN).
"I'm glad that I had the opportunity to explore a potpourri of research experiences at OSU," Kuy said. "I'm certain that these undergraduate research experiences and publications provided a competitive edge in applying for medical school, awards and scholarships."
Kuy will leave OSU with a long list of university honors. For three years in a row, she has received the Waldo Cummings Outstanding Student Leader Award that goes to only five students each year. As a junior, she was the recipient of the Dr. Jo Anne Trow Woman of Distinction Award. Kuy was also active in student government and served as president of four student organizations. She also found time to volunteer at the local hospital, nursing homes and Habitat for Humanity. Kuy said her education was made possible by several individuals and organizations, including the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians, Earle Chiles, the families of Marilyn Koski and the families of Faith and Tom Norris.
"It hasn't been a linear path," Kuy said. "There have been a few bends in the road. But it's been a good journey. I look forward to discovering new bends in the road ahead. And, whatever may lie ahead, my experiences and my mentors at OSU have prepared me well."