AUBURN – Phary Hem hasn’t had the typical college experience: Her worries have been bigger than money and grades.
She had to quit basketball to care for her father when he had cancer. She’s been a translator for her parents, who immigrated from Cambodia. While a full-time student, she’s cared for mentally and physically disabled patients, often bringing her clients to campus.
“She’s got a big heart,” said Paula O’Brien, director of student support services at Central Maine Community College.
Hem’s humanitarian efforts and her academic achievements earned her to honor of being chosen the school’s student of the year.
She was among 313 who graduated Friday at the Colisee. Soon her picture will hang on the college’s Student Hall of Fame wall in Jalbert Hall.
Hem, 21, is the youngest in a family that emigrated from Cambodia in 1984. She was born in the Philippines while her family was on their way here, she said.
They moved to Kingfield and later to Augusta, where Hem graduated from Cony High School.
Growing up, it was hard for her parents, Muntha and Nok Hem, to adjust to American life. Hem took on adult responsibilities, serving as interpreter and tutor for her parents.
At 16, she guided them through the process of becoming naturalized citizens. There were mounds of paperwork to fill out and oversee. With a book and study guide, “usually every night or every other night we’d look through it and quiz each other,” Hem said.
After high school, she enrolled in a two-year program at CMCC. It took longer because she changed her program from liberal arts to medical assisting. And her father got sick.
Her college priorities diminished in 2004 when her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “There was a lot of testing, daily medications to make sure he was taking,” she said. “I had to be there and translate.”
Her father’s cancer is in remission, and he’s doing well,” Hem said with a smile.
Her grades suffered during the ordeal, but she came back from it, O’Brien said. She nominated Hem for student of the year because she was unwilling to give up.
“I could see something special in her,” O’Brien said. “She’s very dedicated. And she’s very generous.”
Once her father stabilized, Hem began working full-time as a house parent at the John F. Murphy Homes in Auburn, providing direct support for four young adults who have mental and physical disabilities.
She often brought her clients to campus. Students saw Hem adjusting her wheelchair-bound clients in the stands to watch basketball or having a meal with them in the student dining commons.
Hem said she likes to interact with her clients. “You see something different every hour. It’s neat.”
She plans a career in health care. Her medical assisting degree will allow her to work in doctors’ offices where she can help with patients by taking vital signs and documenting histories.
O’Brien predicts Hem will do well in health care. “She’s so compassionate.”
After graduation, Hem and her parents plan to take a five-week trip to Cambodia. Her parents haven’t been back since they left. Hem has never been. She will be introduced to uncles and other relatives she’s never met.
“I just bought tickets,” she said “I am excited.”