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With Help from GEAR UP, Coco Huang’s Internships Open Doors to Career Choices

Written by
Stephen Mease

April 20, 2022


Coco Huang

If Shixin Huang’s parents had decided to remain in Guangdong, China, where she was born, she would have taken a standardized test in the sixth grade that would have determined whether she would have the chance to go to college, could go to technical school, or would go straight into the workforce. “In middle school, your fate is decided,” she explains. 

Instead, when Shixin, known as “Coco,” was eight years old, her family emigrated to America and settled in Wells River, Vt. Her parents went to work with other family members, who own two Chinese restaurants in the area. They came here specifically to give their two children – Coco and her younger brother, who was five at the time – more access to a wider range of educational opportunities. “They wanted us to have 12 years of guaranteed schooling and the opportunity to go to college,” Coco says.

But getting there required more than just the opportunity itself; it also took lots of hard work, determination, and knowing where to turn for help.

Coco HuangCoco mastered all these skills from a young age. Thanks to extra English tutoring in China, where her parents knew they would eventually move to America, Coco arrived in Vermont already knowing a lot of English vocabulary. But putting those words together into fluent conversation didn’t come easy. “Fortunately, I had a really good ESL teacher, Mrs. Parrot,” Coco says, as well as an older cousin who attended Blue Mountain Union and could coach her through things like ordering lunch and figuring out which bus to get on after school.

Coco worked hard to become a fluent English speaker and a straight-A student, and when she got to high school, she immersed herself in a wide variety of activities, from softball and cheerleading to student council, to local government and community outreach. As the Senior Student Representative on the Blue Mountain Union School Board, she offers the board’s voting members a student perspective on the policy matters before them. She also works with 302 Cares, a community health organization.

Not surprisingly, as Coco got to high school, her mom and dad encouraged her to think about college. But when the time came to apply, Coco’s parents didn’t have the experience or the language skills to help her navigate what is a fairly complicated system, between college admissions, scholarships, and financial aid.

So, Coco turned to her VSAC counselor, Sara Vargo, and to the resources available through the GEAR UP program.  

“Coco is a dedicated student. She is active in GEAR UP and asks for help when she needs it,” says Vargo, noting that Coco regularly attended virtual GEAR UP academic check-ins after sitting through a full day of online classes. She sought advice around course selection and enrolled in as many dual-enrollment courses as she could, with GEAR UP’s financial support.

She also leaned on GEAR UP to help her navigate the college process. 

“As a first-generation college student, my parents didn’t have a lot of experience that they could pass along to me. On top of that, they weren’t very good at English, so that was another barrier. I had to navigate the entire process, plus financial aid, by myself,” Coco says. “So, I worked with Sara, and she was super helpful.”

Sara helped Coco refine her college list based on her interests, then walked her through applying to nine schools. “When it came to financial aid stuff, there was a lot of vocabulary I didn’t understand. So, I would ask Sara to clarify things. We would email and text once a week. And VSAC hosted a financial aid night at my school, which was really helpful.”

Sara also connected Coco with an opportunity that has shaped her career interests: a six-week summer internship at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. “She introduced me to the program and helped me through applying and interviewing,” Coco recalls.

In the program, Coco rotated through several medical departments, including physical and occupational therapy, the OB/GYN clinic, and the gastrointestinal department. She got to shadow at the patient simulation center, where they train nurses and doctors. And the student interns heard from different speakers every week, one of whom was particularly inspiring for Coco.

“One of the speakers was a community health specialist who got her Master of Public Health at Dartmouth. She talked about how the wealth of a community is often a big indicator of how healthy that community is. That really sparked my interest,” says Coco, who aspires to work in public health, health promotion, or disease prevention.

Coco has also looked for opportunities to immerse herself in public policy, which is closely tied to public health. “I accepted the role of senior student rep on the school board because I wanted to learn more about policymaking,” she says, and she’s also learned about advocacy through her work with 302 Cares. What have been her most insightful lessons? “Oftentimes politics plays a large role in the cost of health care and how care is distributed,” she says, “and policy decisions are not always easy right-or-wrong choices. Cutting a budget or adding a program is not always an easy decision to make.”

So far, Coco has been accepted to St. Michael’s College, Fordham University, VTSU Castleton, Clark University, Brandeis University, Brown University, and the University of Vermont, from which she earned the prestigious Green and Gold Scholarship. With so many great options, Coco is still deciding where she’ll go, but says she is particularly drawn to Brandeis and Brown.

As for who encouraged her the most throughout high school, Coco says, “Probably Sara. She encouraged me to challenge myself by taking harder classes and applying to programs like the Dartmouth internship. And when we would meet, she always tried to make sure that everything was going well for me, not just in terms of school, but that I was happy with my peers and making time to relax as well. I’ve always been comfortable talking to Sara about everything, whether it’s the stress of applying to college or anything else. It was good to know I always had someone to talk to.”

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