Philadelphia high school student wins scholarship after parents' deaths

Annenberg fund gives a full scholarship to Heirl He, a Philadelphia child of Cambodian refugees.
Annenberg fund gives a full scholarship to Heirl He, a Philadelphia child of Cambodian refugees.
Posted: June 22, 2010

Heirl He has a favorite parable.

Two men ask for a woman's hand in marriage. One is rich enough to promise a life of leisure; the other can offer nothing but himself.

The woman is torn, until she asks herself a simple question: What's the fun of a life too easily led?

"That," Heirl He says, "is why she chose my dad."

Easy never did figure into the marital equation for He's mother and father. Both born in Cambodia to Chinese immigrants, they barely survived the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge and, in the early 1980s, fled to America to build a family. With menial work, a translation dictionary, and steely resolve, Huor He and Chheng Tea managed to feed two more mouths.

But in April 2005, breast cancer claimed He's mother. In September 2006, liver cancer took her father.

What they left their daughter, then 13, was a lesson about making the most of a life that wasn't easy. She did - and this month won a four-year, full-ride grant from the Leonore Annenberg College Scholarship Fund.

Poise, passion, and a grade-point average that honors courses boosted past 4.0 were some, but only some, of the reasons why arbiters of the Annenberg Fund chose He, now 17 and soon to be a Central High School senior, as one of five national recipients.

The scholarship, named for the philanthropist who established it a year before her death in 2009, is offered to young people with potential to lead their generation.

"Good grades and standardized tests are the basic," said Gail Levin, director of the scholarship program. "After that, we're looking for the intangibles."

Those Heirl He has.

As her parents' health failed, she turned the dual tragedies into an undying pledge: that she would work tirelessly in school in their honor.

"I was an orphan," she said, voice catching, "but it did motivate me to a great extent."

Fred Kowit, her counselor at Central, noticed not only her academic zeal but the uncommon strength that sprang from the hardships in her young life. Kowit knew he had a worthy candidate for an Annenberg scholarship.

"Her character uplifts me," the counselor said.

At the start of He's junior year, Kowit nominated her through Philadelphia Futures, a mentoring and guidance program for low-income students and Annenberg's partner in selecting finalists from the city. She is the third Philadelphia recipient in the program's three years.

"They came to give their children the opportunities they didn't have," brother Khong, now 22, said of their parents. "This is exactly what they wanted to see."

When Cambodia fell to the murderous Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge in 1975, Huor He was forced into a labor camp, where the daily agenda included a tiptoe-trek through a mountain salted with land mines. He eluded death, his daughter said, by swinging on vines above the explosives.

Her mother fled to Thailand, only to find that refugees from across the border were not welcome. One night, she was spared execution only because she knew enough Thai to cajole the thug militia into letting her go.

"That's why I always take language classes," Heirl He explained with a grin.

Her parents escaped separately to America, landing in North Philadelphia, where Huor He worked in a bakery and his wife in a factory. When they died, Khong and an aunt became Heirl's legal guardians.

"I had to take on the parent role," said her brother, a senior at Temple University and a part-time bank teller. "She made it this far, so I think I did something right."

From her first day at Central, she expressed her disdain for all but the first letter of the alphabet. Now, with junior grades still pending, she has yet to receive a final mark below an A. She ranks 12th in her class of 562, in an academic environment where No. 12 can tick off the names of the top 11 like state capitals.

Even before she was awarded the Annenberg grant, college was a foregone conclusion. Her brother had resolved to pay for her schooling; she would help by getting a job. Not attending did not cross her mind, she said, even though "there's no 'maybe my parents will take care of it for me.' "

Then she nailed the Annenberg interview.

"Adversity strengthens their personalities," said Levin, the fund's director. "After you've faced obstacles and challenges, an interview with five adults for a scholarship is not that big of a deal."

But it is, of course. Because of the grant, her brother can save up for a place of his own, where she'll be able to return during holiday breaks - from anywhere her imagination (and college admissions officers) will allow.

"It's really like Cinderella," said Christine MacArthur, her adviser at Central and a former English teacher.

"She doesn't have Prince Charming. But she has education."

Though He plans to begin visiting colleges in earnest this summer, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has emerged as an early front-runner. Business, she says, is one of her career ambitions, even if relatives from Cambodia - many of them manual laborers since emigrating - have their reservations about the field.

"They all think office work is easy," she said.

And you can't have that.

Contact staff writer Matt Flegenheimer at 215-854-5614 or

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