Cambodian American student is first in her family to earn college degree

Melissa Sample

Melissa Sample is the first in her family to earn a college degree. 

Her mother’s family fled from Cambodia through landmine-infested land to Thailand, where they later immigrated to the United States.

Growing up in San Jose, California, Sample and her mother and younger brother never owned a home. They rented rooms from other families until Sample was 12. Eventually, her grandmother bought a home that housed three generations, but Sample still shared a room with her mother and brother.

Sample graduated May 13, earning an associate’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“I am excited to graduate,” she said. “I am doing this for my mom, to make a better life for her, and to show my son that there is no reason not to go to college.”

Knowing that her family could not afford to pay for college, Sample joined the U.S. Navy at 18. She was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, aboard the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. She worked as a damage controlman, similar to a firefighter.

In 2010, she met her future husband, Aaron, who is also in the Navy. They started dating in January 2012, and their romance blossomed into marriage by October 2012.

In 2014, Sample was honorably discharged from the Navy when she had her son, Maverick, who is now 3 years old. The couple decided to return to Aaron’s hometown of Benton, Arkansas.

Living in Arkansas was quite an adjustment for Sample. The only people she knew in the state were her husband and his family. She started taking classes at the UA Little Rock Benton Center, where she also worked as a computer lab assistant.

“The Benton campus is an exciting place to gain knowledge, and the professors are helpful as well as interesting,” Sample said. “I met a classmate on this campus for which we became great friends, and she is like the sister I never had. Graduating with an associate degree is a step closer to securing a home of my very own.”

Earning an associate degree is only one step toward her education plan. In the fall, Sample will begin taking classes on UA Little Rock’s main campus, majoring in communication sciences and disorders.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, she plans to complete a doctorate in audiology. She wants to work at a Veterans Affairs office, so she can help veterans who experienced hearing loss because of active duty.

Sample hopes to one day earn enough money to buy her own house, one where her mother can live with her. She wants to provide for her mother as her mother provided for her through the tough times.  

“My mom is a very strong person,” Sample said. “She had to work to support my younger brother and I as a single parent. I wanted to get an education so I could get a house. We never had a house of our own to call home. I want my mom to live with me, so that I could be there for her as she was for me.”  

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