Gilbert teen Toan Ngo remembers well his past and hard work that’s led to the honor he received this week — a $150,000 military scholarship — and his future as a Marine.
“Do you want the short version or the long version?” he asks.
The story doesn’t begin with him, but with his grandparents. They fled Vietnam more than three decades ago with his dad on a boat that sank during its travels. His dad and grandparents landed on a beach somewhere and were sent to a refugee camp. After two years, they were told they could go to Berlin immediately or go to America if they stayed imprisoned for two more years, Ngo said.
They chose Berlin.
That’s where Ngo was born 17 years ago. In Germany, his dad attended school, trained as an engineer, became a successful businessman, and built a life for the family.
But they left that behind when Ngo was 12 to move to America to live with an uncle in Queen Creek.
He and his father now live on their own, and despite the language struggle — he now speaks German, Vietnamese and English fluently — one idea was sparked shortly after landing in Arizona.
“My dream of becoming a U.S. Marine started in seventh grade. That’s when two Marines came to the campus and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Ngo said.
A few years later, Ngo became interested in the medical field and he set another goal for himself: to become a surgeon.
But he knew it would take an education. And his family’s current financial situation could not easily make that happen.
At 16, with his father’s permission, he started showing up at a Marine recruiter’s workout program. He joined the junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) program at his high school where his leadership ability stood out, said Sgt. Zack Jenner, a recruiter for the East Valley.
Ngo landed at Gilbert High School for his senior year after transferring from another Gilbert school when the junior ROTC program there closed. He now commands the 100 other teens in his group.
Jenner nominated Ngo for the Navy ROTC scholarship. The 17-year-old teen then had to prove himself academically, physically and through leadership.
He stood out among the 130 candidates from the Western region to receive the honor, which was formally presented to him Wednesday by Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Daniel D. Yoo, who leads the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego.
Yoo said after presentation that the scholarship is a “very selective” program.
“It’s not so much what he’s done in the past. It’s about the potential he or she can have,” he said. “It shows the importance of education and the importance of volunteering.”
Ngo said the scholarship puts his future into motion.
“My immediate thought is I don’t have to worry anymore. My education is paid for. I’m set for life,” he said after the ceremony.
He had “plan B” in place, he said. He enlisted in the Marines in July with hopes it would pay for college later. But now, with that contract voided because of the scholarship, he will attend Arizona State University in the fall and study biochemistry. He will continue with the college ROTC.
Jenner said Ngo is a dedicated young man.
“He’s always motivated. He’s there early. He leaves late ... It was great to see him transition into — not only an awesome person — but grow through the ranks,” he said.
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