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Volunteering at MDA camp in high school helped former Step Up scholar find his life’s calling

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

Tommy Pham decided he wanted to become a doctor during a week at a Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp, helping children who have been affected by the disease that weakens the muscles.

There was swimming and horseback riding, dancing and zip-lining. Fun activities, for sure.

But Tommy and the other volunteers were on-call 24 hours a day to help the children eat and shower, brush their teeth and use the bathroom – simple tasks for most, but, monumental obstacles for these young campers.

“It was probably the first time in my life where I had to actually take care of somebody else besides myself,” Tommy said. “It helped me grow as an individual, for sure.”

That growth led Tommy to the University of Notre Dame, where he is a sophomore in the pre-med program.

“It was definitely an experience that called me into the medical field,” Tommy said. “Definitely.”

Tommy, 19, attended the camp the summer before his senior year at Jesuit High, a private Catholic school in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. The life-altering week was one of several of what Tommy called “resources” available at Jesuit that helped shape who he is today.

(Read the first installment of the three-part series about Tommy here.)

There were the academic resources that allowed Tommy to become an honor student and earn a QuestBridge Scholarship that pays for his entire college education.

There were other resources, the clubs and summer volunteer programs, that added to his personal growth.

They were available to Tommy because of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship enables students from lower-income families to attend private schools that best fit their learning needs.

Tommy’s parents are from Vietnam. They emigrated to Florida 25 years ago and both work in the service industry. They often work two jobs each to help care for Tommy and his younger sister Jennifer, a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. Jennifer attends the private high school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Tommy understands the sacrifices his parents made with the hope he could attain the American dream. He was eager to use every resource available at Jesuit to move him in that direction.

A neuroscience and behavior major at Notre Dame, Tommy wants to become a doctor that helps those in financial need. That desire to work among the underprivileged was born the summer before his junior year. He spent a week on a mission trip to northern Georgia. While Tommy’s family struggled to make ends meet, this was the first time he experienced extreme poverty.


Tommy spent his fall break at Notre Dame with classmates in West Virginia, helping to build wheelchair accessible paths and picnic areas at the New River Gorge.

“I realized we can do much more than just work in our local community,” Tommy said. “It broadened my idea of community service. It also expanded my comfort zone.”

The courses, clubs and volunteer programs at Jesuit are designed to move the students along to higher education. That was always Tommy’s goal.

“But I didn’t completely understand the whole application process until junior year,” he said. “Realizing, ‘Oh wait, money is a big factor, too.’ I thought maybe if I work hard on my academics that I could eventually get into a top college.”  

And that’s what happened.

The QuestBridge Scholarship was founded by Stanford University in the mid-2000s to give top academic high school seniors from lower-income families the opportunity to attend a top college or university.

Tommy was one of 918 students nationwide from the class of 2018 to earn a QuestBridge scholarship. He was the first from Jesuit to receive one.

He attends school in Indiana, more than 1,100 miles from his hometown. He was introduced during his freshman year to northern winters. For the first time in his life, he saw snow and experienced subfreezing temperatures.

The educational setting is different, but Tommy feels comfortable in his new surroundings. While challenged by the workload associated with pre-med courses, Tommy is prepared.

“I’m much more confident in myself, much more confident in my own abilities,” he said, “just knowing that there is a supportive community (at Notre Dame) that is always willing to help you grow, not only academically but also emotionally and spiritually. Jesuit definitely introduced me to that aspect of learning. For that, I’m very thankful.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Step Up scholarship leads to top grades in high school and pre-med classes at Notre Dame

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

More than 80,000 fans squeezed their way into Notre Dame Stadium on the first Saturday of November 2019 to see the football team pull off a thrilling last-minute comeback victory.

Normally, Tommy Pham would have been in the student section, screaming himself silly with his schoolmates as the Fighting Irish rallied for the win. But on that Saturday, the sophomore from Tampa, Florida who majors in neuroscience and behavior, found himself in another part of campus, getting a jump on some schoolwork.

Would Tommy loved to have been across campus at the football game? You bet.

But he is in the pre-med track with his sights set squarely on medical school and a career as a doctor, perhaps a neurosurgeon, though Tommy has a few years before he has to pick a specialty.

It’s that ability to ignore distractions and immerse himself in the resources available at his schools that served Tommy well during his four years at Jesuit High in Tampa and now at the University of Notre Dame outside of South Bend, Indiana, which he attends on a full academic scholarship.

If you’re looking for someone who took full advantage of the opportunities provided by a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students, Tommy is your man.

“I’m very blessed knowing I can use these resources to grow emotionally, academically,” Tommy, 19, said, “so that later on in life I can be at the place in my life that my parents have always wanted to be in but couldn’t due to their limited resources.”

Tommy’s parents emigrated from Vietnam to the United States 25 years ago. They are both employed in the service industry, sometimes working two jobs each to make ends meet.

This left Tommy to look after his younger sister, Jennifer, who is nearly two years younger and is a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. Like her brother, Jennifer attends a private high school with the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

“I was almost like a third parent, in a way,” Tommy said. “I matured much quicker as a child than other kids.”

Tommy’s parents always stressed education. Using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Tommy left his district school for Incarnation Catholic School as a sixthgrader. From there, he scored high enough on the entrance exam to earn a spot at Jesuit.

An honor student who graduated near the top of his class, Tommy turned that Jesuit education into a QuestBridge Scholarship, which covers 100 percent of the cost of his college education.

QuestBridge, is a California-based nonprofit designed to help academically gifted students from low-income families attend some of the top colleges and universities in the country.

Tommy said he has thanked his parents “many, many times” for pushing him academically and pursuing a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

“There were times I wouldn’t see them at home,” he said. “Seeing that cycle for a long time made me realize they definitely made a lot of sacrifices. It takes a lot of energy to do that every single day for 18 years of my life. It definitely pushed me harder to work and minimize the excuses I make for myself.”

Tommy earned a coveted QuestBridge Scholarship because of his academic success at Jesuit High in Tampa.

He has often wondered what his life would look like now had he not received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Given his work ethic and his desire to learn, Tommy knows he would be in college. But where? Would he be in a pre-med program? Would he even want to be a doctor?

He thinks the resources at his neighborhood school would have been limited compared to Jesuit’s.

It was while volunteering at a camp for children with Muscular Dystrophy before his senior year when Tommy realized he wanted to be a doctor. Having seen extreme poverty during a mission trip the previous summer to the Appalachia area of Georgia, Tommy decided he wanted to work with low-income and disadvantaged patients.

“My life could be really different, and I’m not sure if that difference would be a good thing or a bad thing,” Tommy said. “But I know for sure the values I have today were because of the opportunities Jesuit offered. I value education, but I also value personal development, as well, and I’m not sure if that personal development would have been as great like it was for me at Jesuit had I gone to a different school. I definitely value that part of my high school experience, for sure.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.