|Phi-Phi with "mom," Margie, at high school graduation.|
Phi-Phi’s senior year was tumultuous, to say the least. In her words, “It was exciting, joyful, stressful, heartbreaking, and intense. There were so many conflicting emotions.” —and so many miracles. Her heart was broken multiple times and shattered into many pieces. Yet that same broken heart was somehow still beating in her chest, keeping her alive, moving her forward. Phi-Phi was very eager to start college in the fall, start meeting new people, and begin a new chapter of her life.
She lived with the Stahelis for the next five months, calling them Mom and Dad, while she graduated from high school and continued there through the summer.
Phi-Phi was a conscientious, hardworking and disciplined student and earned outstanding grades and wonderful letters of recommendations from her counselor and teachers, and was consequently accepted by every college to which she applied.
Even with every door open for her, Phi-Phi chose Occidental College—a small liberal arts college in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles, just a 25-minute drive from San Gabriel. Phi-Phi selected Occidental for its academic excellence, its diversity, and its proximity. It turned out to be an excellent fit. She is very grateful for her Oxy experience.
The first year of college was academically rigorous, and a challenge for Phi-Phi. Having always been an excellent student, she was surprised to find herself suddenly getting B’s. But she forged ahead, in typical Phi-Phi fashion. The Stahelis continued to provide a wonderful home for Phi-Phi during school breaks and weekends, making the short drive to Oxy to pick her up many times during her freshman year.
In October of 1990, when Phi-Phi found out she had passed both the verbal and written parts of her U.S. citizenship exam with flying colors, it was a very emotional experience. Everything she’d been through since the age of six came flooding back to her…the aborted boat escape, the prison, the long walk through Cambodia, the separation from her mother, the bicycle trip through the jungle, the refugee camps in Thailand, the danger, the starvation and dehydration, the oppressive heat, the move across the continent, the death of her father. It was so much more than just the exams and the paperwork. This was her life.
The realization that she couldn’t call her dad (who had been with her through the entire journey), nor could she call her former boyfriend (who had been the love of her life until their breakup a few months earlier) was devastating and overwhelming. Instead, Phi-Phi reached out to the Stahelis, and Margie picked her up and brought her home.
Read part 9 here.