The Current

She pursued an education when others told her not to. Now, she's a college valedictorian

Ashley Vien said her family struggled with issues like addiction and low income when she was growing up, and that she never really had a home. She wanted something different for her own family, and thought “the way to go was just continuing school.”

Ashley Vien wanted a better life for her family, and thought ‘the way to go was just continuing school'

Ashley Vien, 26, and her daughter Jamiee, who is now six years old. Vien is graduating from the Pilon School of Business at Sheridan College, and was named her class valedictorian. (Submitted by Ashley Vien)

Growing up, Ashley Vien remembers feeling envious of the stability that a 9 to 5 job could offer.

The 26-year-old came from a family that struggled with issues like addiction and low income, she said. She never really had a home, but instead migrated from place to place, carrying her belongings in a trash bag and eventually dropping out of high school.

"Investments [in] the future [were] never something that we thought about, because we just had to deal with the bills of today," Vien told The Current's Matt Galloway.

But when she became pregnant with her daughter, Jamiee, who is now six, Vien knew she wanted to break free of that lifestyle.

"I just didn't feel like I had that same vision as my family. I always felt a little bit [like the] black sheep," she said. 

"I just wanted something different, and I thought the way to go was just continuing school."

This month, Vien is graduating from the Pilon School of Business at Sheridan College in Mississauga, Ont., where she's been named class valedictorian. It's not only a major milestone for her, but for her family; none of her relatives graduated from high school or went on to post-secondary education, she said.

Vien spoke to The Current as part of a special show celebrating post-secondary graduates of 2021, many of whom have been unable to take part in in-person graduation ceremonies because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

'I felt like I was a stereotype'

After Vien became pregnant with her daughter, she decided to go back to an alternative school to complete her high school diploma, and get a full-time job as a receptionist, to earn some money.

She wanted to give her daughter a more stable life, she said, where, no matter what, her child could come home and know her mother would be there for her.

"It was hard, because I felt like I was a stereotype of that type of person who got pregnant and then they go to high school," Vien said. "I felt like I was looked at a certain way."

Vien, seen here with her daughter, says she dropped out of high school, but decided to pursue her education after she became pregnant. She says she wanted to give her child a more stable life than she had growing up. (Submitted by Ashley Vien)

It was even more difficult without her family's support, she said, explaining that relatives told her she was wasting her money and time by getting an education.

"But I did have a lot of help with teachers, where they had compassion for what I was going through," Vien added. "That's kind of what pulled me through into graduating."

With her advanced diploma in human resources management soon to be in hand, Vien is helping others find job opportunities, even if they haven't had a conventional journey to get there. 

She said her own experience has helped her relate to some of those individuals.

Helping others find success

"We have such a great initiative at my work, where we are trying to look for those who need the job more and who have earned it, but not in a mainstream way," Vien said about her position as an HR co-ordinator. 

"We're looking a little bit farther [than candidates who] graduated from Ryerson, graduated from U of T," she explained. 

"We're kind of looking at just more of, give us a cover letter, show us that passion and drive, and, you know, we are willing to give you that chance."

I hope that this shows them that, with everything that we've gone through, we can still graduate and that education is important, and to invest in yourself.- Ashley Vien

Despite her own success, Vien admitted that she was surprised to be chosen as valedictorian.

"I was like, is this for real? Because I am not any type of valedictorian, or at least the ones you see in movies, where they are so involved in programs and sports and they're kind of popular," she said.

However, she believes the next generation of young people are changing stereotypes, and perhaps that's why she was selected for the role.

Even though her journey was different, she said she hopes it will serve as inspiration to others, including her younger cousins.

"I hope that this shows them that, with everything that we've gone through, we can still graduate and that education is important, and to invest in yourself," she said.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alison Masemann.

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