She was first influenced as a child by television pictures of 15th-century temples in China's Forbidden City and elaborate, ornate churches in Europe, beautifully designed structures, all of which left an indelible mark on a little Chinese girl growing up in Vietnam.
"It just caught my attention, the details, and how people, way, way back then – they didn't have technology, they didn't have anything – how they could build those elaborate temples or churches that are really detailed," said Western Carolina University alumni Tuyen Tram, who carried those images with her when she and her family moved to the U.S. from Vietnam 10 years ago for a better education and life.
Tram, now 23, graduated summa cum laude — with highest honors — sporting a 4.0 GPA with degrees in interior design and computer information systems and a portfolio full of awards, accolades, and scholarships that will solidify her legacy at WCU.
Tram was the recipient of four endowed scholarships including the Wilma Cosper, Bronce and Betty Ray, and Nicholas and Grady Justice Bonarrigo scholarships, totally over $10,000. She is especially grateful for the scholarship money she has received over her six years at WCU because it gave her time to focus on earning two degrees, reduced her undergraduate school debt and essentially helped her reach that bar she had set so high early in her college life.
"I was really excited that I was awarded a scholarship with a big enough amount to allow me to move on campus at the time. It's changed my life both academically and personally," Tram said of her scholarships.
Tram's scholarships provided her with time and resources needed to dive into co-curricular activities at WCU, including a pitch competition sponsored by EPIC Innovations last fall in which she won second place for a luggage product she designed with fellow interior design major Vincent Christopher Cuffee II. She also completed project work that earned her recognition with an International Furnishings & Design Association Rising Stars Award and an Award of Excellence from the interior design program.
Since graduating, Tram has set her eyes on architecture school as a next step. She plans to apply next year to eight universities in London, which she visited over spring break, plus Harvard, Princeton, Clemson, N.C. State and UNC Charlotte.
Her accomplishments are particularly remarkable considering that 10 years ago when she and her family left Vietnam for San Diego, she didn't speak English.
"When I was in San Diego, I went to school and I didn't speak English. I was in class with a few Mexican friends, who had just moved to the states, so we didn't really speak the language," she said. "And then it's like two years that I didn't communicate with people in the same way that I would with my Vietnamese friends. Because I didn't speak the language, I focused more on studying and I didn't really have time for anything else."
Tram and her three sisters kept to themselves those two years in California for fear of the "bad people" in the neighborhood their aunt had warned them about, venturing outside only to walk to school. Their friends were each other. After Tram's father died, her mother, needing a job, moved the family to Hendersonville to work in a nail salon at the invitation of a friend who had relocated from Vietnam. And it was there that she broke through the language barrier and began to consider the idea of college.
Erin Adams, associate professor of interior design and program coordinator, said Tram always sets a high bar for herself. "She is professional, dedicated and can always be counted on to complete projects flawlessly," Adams said. "In our program office, she not only assisted the professors with day-to-day tasks but more importantly, she mentored younger design majors and tutored underclassmen in all areas of design."
She also impressed longtime WCU Print Shop Manager Tom Frazier, who nominated Tram for the 2017-18 Student Employee of the Year Award.
"This marks my 40th year in the printing industry working with high school-age students to 30-year veteran printers, and I have never encountered someone quite like Tuyen Tram," Frazier said in his nomination letter.
Tram plans to spend the next year working at the Print Shop while she studies for the Graduate Record Exam and prepares her portfolio for architectural school, which is great news to Frazier. "She's incredible. She's changed the standard of student employment," he said.
Tram said it won't be easy to leave WCU, but she looks forward to being in a position one day to give back to the university that gave her an opportunity.
"I'm really thankful for all of the scholarships that I have been given and for my time at WCU, and I think it's really important to pass that on to the next person that needs the money. In the future, I would like to give back to students as well," notes alumni Tram.