The journey from BIS HCMC to Havard University Michelles story - The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University Michelles story
Chantal Gamble
03 May, 2024

The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University: Michelle's story

The journey from BIS HCMC to Havard University Michelles story - The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University Michelles story
Meet Michelle - a BIS HCMC Year 13 student who transformed an unexpected pandemic move into a journey of leadership and academic success. We sat down with her to unlock the secrets to her success and how she secured a spot at Harvard, alongside 7 other US universities. 

The journey from BIS HCMC to Havard University Michelles story - The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University Michelles story
Michelle with her peers at the Year 13 leavers assembly


Settling into new school life at BIS HCMC

Like many of us, Michelle found herself in difficult circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, Michelle and her family were living in China. 

“I remember just being down in the basement and my mom ran down yelling: ‘Pack your bags – just essentials. We need to leave for the airport NOW.’”

The family hoped to wait out what was – at the time – an epidemic and spend their Lunar New Year in Vietnam, their home country… little did they know it was about to become a global pandemic and they would stay in Vietnam for the foreseeable future with borders closed down. “I was meant to stay 2 months… and then it turned into 4 years! I have since been at BIS from Year 10 when I started my IGCSEs (International General Certificate of Secondary Education)”. 

“My most impactful memory came only two months into my BIS journey during the International Day Culture Show. The cheering and singing along were what really made BIS ‘it’ for me. I reflect on that event very fondly as I have for every event that followed.”

The journey from BIS HCMC to Havard University Michelles story - The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University Michelles story

Secondary International Day, 2020


It was the school community that made her feel at home very quickly at BIS HCMC;

“Moving from what was a much smaller school, I was initially intimidated by the size of BIS. Yet, I soon realised that the support the community has to offer is unlike anything I could imagine and is truly unparalleled. BIS is not too big to the point where you feel lonely on school grounds; equally so, it’s not too small where things can get boring. It’s easy to familiarise yourself with the environment, which is really nice. But at the same time, there’s always something new and exciting to do every single day. It made it feel so much closer than I would have originally thought it would be, and that closeness is what I believe set it apart.”

It was this close-knit, supportive and inclusive community, alongside the wide range of IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) subjects we offer, that encouraged Michelle to persuade her parents to let her stay at BIS, despite their plans to move to Angola once she had completed her IGCSEs.

“It was really complicated and I made a fuss about staying in Vietnam. Had I gone with them I would have spent that year bouncing between three countries: from here to China and then to Angola. In Angola, I would have had to change all my IB subjects.”

After a trial run session staying by herself, Michelle’s parents – impressed by her responsibility – agreed she could navigate the demands of her sixth form years independently.

Balancing the IBDP with support 

Michelle juggled a demanding schedule: the rigorous IBDP program, university applications, head student duties, and co-curricular activities – alongside her personal household responsibilities. She laughingly admitted to Harvard that mastering scrambled eggs would be a future conquest! Despite the pressure, Michelle credits the supportive network at BIS HCMC for helping her navigate it all.

“My teachers have been absolutely amazing. They are so flexible with their time with me and they’re so supportive and patient. For instance, during my Maths IA (Internal Assessment), my teacher would sit with me every other day after school for up to 2 hours to talk through any of my struggles. Or for my Biology IA where my teacher was always there to supervise, help me obtain resources last minute, or just keep me company even when it was 5PM and they should have been home. I had their support if ever and whenever I needed it and without them, I don’t know where I would be right now.”

She also expressed her gratitude to our wonderful Sixth Form Team whom she credits for their unwavering support, guidance and encouragement:

“Oh, and I cannot talk about balancing my IB journey without talking about the Sixth Form office. I still can’t figure out why they could ever be so patient with one student. They’ve really helped me tailor the IB journey to let me take it at a pace most comfortable for me, and I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

This tailored approach is to learning is something we pride ourselves on at BIS HCMC. Our teachers are specialists in huge variety of subjects from performing arts to design technology and sports. They support and guide each individual student to their unique pathway to success. You only have to look to our alumni to realise how many BIS students are empowered to achieve their goals and make their dreams a reality. Whether it’s Jeremie, swimming for the Vietnam national team, Jenna performing on the West End or Michelle, heading to her dream Ivy League school.

The university application process

By Year 10, Michelle had set her sights on the US as a university destination, drawn to their flexibility for exploring academic interests and their focus on extracurriculars. Meeting with Mr. Rispin – our senior college and university guidance counsellor – early on in Year 11 became a turning point. His support, including a well-crafted recommendation letter, proved invaluable. 

“[Mr. Rispin] was so supportive and involved in my application journey. It wasn’t just learning enough about me to write a good [recommendation letter] for me, but actual care for how I was doing every step of the process – mental health wise, academically… just about anything. Sometimes, I would come into his office out of the blue to give him even the most minuscule detail and he would still be all ears.”


The journey from BIS HCMC to Havard University Michelles story - The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University Michelles story

Michelle with Mr Rispin, Senior College and University Guidance Counsellor, Ms Hall, Head of Sixth Form and Mr Kay, Head of Secondary


Michelle initially intended to study medicine at university, but upon taking IGCSE Economics when she joined BIS she would foster a greater love for the social sciences. “I’ve narrowed it down to the social sciences, I’ve talked about Economics a lot. Specifically for Harvard, I have expressed a great interest in studying government as it was an academic program that intrigued me. I love that they give me the flexibility to see for myself. I am a keen believer that there is still quite a lot that has to change for me – I’m only 17 – so I’ll see where the tide takes me.”

Michelle was also excited to showcase not only her academic prowess but also her passion for social impact initiatives and her co-curricular activities that make up such a huge part of who she is as a person. 

The journey from BIS HCMC to Havard University Michelles story - The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University Michelles story

Michelle, with her fellow Head Students Oscar, Anya and Edric

Towards the end of the 2022-2023 academic year, Michelle received the title of Head Student alongside 3 of her peers. We spoke to her back in April 2023 and she shared some of her aspirations for the role “I believe coming into the role of Head Student also comes with the promise of maintaining the values we have worked hard to keep and I believe that is the support we have for one another. It is our community’s voices and our care that will ultimately make those tangible changes and I wish for my time here to facilitate this process as best I can and to keep our suggestions heard.”
The journey from BIS HCMC to Havard University Michelles story - The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University Michelles story

Michelle together with 40 students and staff members volunteering their time to paint classrooms at Ky Quang Pagoda in Go Vap District

Michelle thrived in leadership roles, co-leading the Thao Dien School visits for children with disabilities, and chairing the Tet Box Collection Campaign with the Sixth-Form Community Committee and the Global Goals Management Team. She took advantage of opportunities to impact the wider community, volunteering at Ky Quang Pagoda to build a better environment for the children who stay there. 

Her community impact initiatives do not stop at BIS though. Her efforts extend internationally, exemplified by founding, building, and managing a school in Angola despite being overseas. Michelle is also currently working on an independent research project on the barriers preventing single mothers in Angola from securing employment.

“I suppose it was a given but it came as a pretty big shock just the overwhelming number of reasons there were that were stopping people from escaping poverty cycles. There is so much to consider and so much more to question. Admittedly, it has taken me very long to complete [the research project].”

As part of her application, Michelle shared that alongside the 10 extracurricular activities she submitted, she also wrote a 650-word as part of the CommonApp, submitted transcripts back from Year 10 during IGCSEs, and 3 recommendation letters. Over the process, she wrote a total of 41 essays (of which 5 were for Harvard). The topics could be anything from a simple “How do you hope to use your Harvard education in the future?” to “Top 3 things your roommates might like to know about you”.

The journey from BIS HCMC to Havard University Michelles story - The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University Michelles story

Michelle training Year 12 prefects


Michelle incredibly balanced all of this together with her IBDP studies and making sure the chores were done on time too. 

Getting the YES from Harvard

Those students who have applied to the 8 prestigious Ivy League universities in the US will know that most students have to wait until 28th March - Ivy League offer day - to find out if they got that all-important yes! But even this part of Michelle’s journey was unexpected too… 

“Honestly, opening college decisions was something I have been dreaming of for ages but I could not have ever anticipated how I ended up receiving this one – or even getting it in the first place. I received a status update at the beginning of March – the 8th – that stated that the Harvard Admissions Committee had voted to admit to the Class of 2028. It was a likely letter! I immediately picked up my phone to call my parents – it must have been what… 4 or 5AM in Angola? I think I made up for waking them up with the news with a very surprised: ‘Guys, I think I just got a likely letter… from Harvard.’ My mom answered with a ‘what?!’ Just as I was, they were shocked.”

Ever modest, when we asked Michelle why she thought she was accepted to Harvard, she simply cited the email she received from Harvard Admissions:

“Just based on the little bit of information I received, it was my commitment to community service and social justice. Understandably, I could see how it served as my ‘spike’. It was what I focused on for most of my interviews and supplemental essays. For me, I know I poured my heart and soul into the conversations I had about them. I think to some degree as well, my personal statement gave them a window into who I am on a day-to-day basis as it was written around my experiences and misfortunes living alone. To be more frank as well, I guess lucky for me, they must’ve liked me!”

On top of the Harvard offer, Michelle received offers from the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, Georgetown University, University of Virginia, Grinnell College and Middlebury College. She even received another YES on the day we met her - this time at Northwestern University.

The journey from BIS HCMC to Havard University Michelles story - The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University Michelles story

Opening her offer from Northwestern University

Advice to our secondary students

When we asked Michelle what her advice would be to students who will be applying to universities in the coming years, she gave an incredibly mature and well-thought-out answer.

“I only applied to the US so this may particularly apply to those aspiring to be in the States but:

1. Be Yourself (as cliche as it is): “Every journey is going to be different. You are a different person to the person sitting next to you. You have something different to bring to the table. Embrace that and showcase it to the best of your ability.”

2. Research: “Do your research EARLY. Base it on who you are and what is most important to you – the community, traditions, clubs and organizations, opportunities, living costs, student-faculty ratio. What’s right for you might not be what’s ranked highest on US News or QS Ranking so it takes that extra mile to find what’s right for you”

3. Fit: “At the end of the day, it boils down to fit. They must see you there as much as you see yourself there. Regardless, you will find your way to a place you belong and where you may find yourself most amongst like-minded people. It also comes down to the sliver of luck where the admissions committee sees you and says: ‘This student would thrive here.’”

4. Take Risks: “Shoot your shot, take your risks, and always remember there is a way up.”

The journey from BIS HCMC to Havard University Michelles story - The journey from BIS HCMC to Harvard University Michelles story

Michelle's journey is a testament to her unwavering passion, kindness and maturity. Her experiences have indeed shaped her into the person she is today. Growing up in an international family, having the support of the world's best teachers and having the opportunities to discover her passions and help others along the way - all have shaped her into the eloquent young adult she is today. We are excited for a future in which leaders just like Michelle will endeavour to make the world a better place.