Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce looking to expand scholarship program

Story and photos by KAREN HOLT BENNION

Growing up near a small village in the Philippines, she would often go to bed on an empty stomach. She spent her summers selling snacks like a vendor at a baseball game just to earn enough money to buy school supplies. She and her 10 brothers and sisters got by without running water or electricity. The only positive aspect in her life was the looking forward to each new school year. For Eunice Jones, education would be her salvation.

Eunice Jones discusses her life, past and present, with student-journalists at the University of Utah.

In her early teens, her parents moved the family to a small apartment in nearby Manila. Jones said the two-bedroom, one bathroom home seemed like a far cry from their “humble beginnings” back in her village. Life became a little easier for the family.

She eventually graduated from high school, and with the financial help from a college scholarship and her family, graduated in the top 10 of her class from a college in Manila. “That’s what we do,” Jones says. “We all help each other.” She got a job and settled down with her husband. They had two sons. However, after her husband left them, Jones decided it was time to venture outside of her home country. This meant breaking the rules of Philippine culture. She was supposed to live with her parents until she remarried.

She left her sons — one of whom was still breastfeeding — behind with her family and moved to Los Angeles, where she had been offered a job with the Hyatt Corp. “It was quite eye opening,” Jones says about her arrival in in that city. However, after three years of saving enough money she was able to obtain visas for her children and fly them to the U.S.

After marrying her second husband, they moved with him to Salt Lake City where she still worked in the hotel business. Finally, Jones decided she was ready for another challenge and earned her realtor’s license. During her first year as a realtor Jones was chosen as Rookie of the Year by Better Homes and Gardens magazine for her outstanding sales skills. She admits she owes it to selling snacks as a little girl in the summer. “I was in sales since I was a little girl,” she says.

In 2005, Jones, along with former Third District Judge Ray Uno, decided to establish the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce. That same year, they also founded the Chamber’s scholarship program with the help of founding sponsor Zion’s Bank. Three scholarships were awarded at $1,000 each. Currently, the Chamber’s charitable foundation offers partial scholarships to an average of 15 students a year. Jones would like to see the scholarship program grow with more sponsors helping to offer full scholarships to high school seniors.

U student Amy Tran received a UACC scholarship in 2010.

One of last year’s recipients, Amy Tran, says the UACC Scholarship Program has helped her in more ways than one. A sophomore in business at the University of Utah, Tran says not only does the program give financial help, it also offers the students chances to receive training in leadership skills from local UACC members.

“The UACC is really supportive and motivating,” she says.

An awards gala and fundraiser for the scholarship program is held every spring. All of the students are invited to attend. They meet each other and are introduced to members of the UACC. The members then teach the students how to network and make connections. Tran says, “They all really try to get to know you.”

Another student at the U has been awarded the UACC’s scholarship for three years in a row. The last time she was awarded the scholarship she received the highest score of all the applicants. Michelle “Mika” Lee is currently earning her master’s degree in occupational therapy. She is also a part-time intern for the UACC. Lee works as the event coordinator.

“Education is placed high in my family — my father got a Ph.D. and my mother got her B.S. early,” Lee wrote in an e-mail interview.

UACC President Lavanya Mahate congratulates Mika Lee at the 2010 Scholarship Gala.

Both students agree that more publicity is needed in order for the scholarship program to grow. Tran heard about the scholarship through her uncle, who is a member of the UACC. She never heard anything about it at her high school. Scholarship co-founder, ZeMin Xiao, says their program is still small compared to other minority programs in the area. The main reason for this, she believes, is due to a stereotype that Asian-Americans do not need scholarships. People view Asian-Americans as the “Model Minorities,” she says. Tran agrees; when she told her friends she was going after different scholarships they told her she didn’t need them.

“You’re Asian, you’re smart, you’ll be fine,”  her friends said.

Xiao would like the Salt Lake community to know there is a scholarship specifically targeting Asian-Americans.  She says the program is constantly trying to find more sponsors. Some of the supporting companies include Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, Crocker Ventures Ltd. and vSpring Capital.

Now divorced, Eunice Jones dedicates more time with members of the UACC to help mentor Asian-American students and to try to get the Salt Lake community to realize that by helping to fund their scholarship program, it is investing in the future of all Utahns. After all, her family invested in her.

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