SIBLEY, Iowa | It would be tough to top the college-search story I featured two years ago from Mount Marty's TJ Smith.

He was the high school junior from Lake Crystal, Minn., who planned to visit Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

He fell asleep as his mother drove. She entered the wrong college on her GPS and ended up in Yankton, S.D., home of Mount Marty College.

Smith played the good sport and took the tour. Four years later, he graduated from Mount Marty.

Marissa Pham has a story that approaches it. Pham, a senior at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School, is an FFA leader, the lead in the school's musical production of "Annie."

She's also a three-time speech all-stater who leads a contingent of Northwest Iowans in performing on Monday at the Iowa High School Speech Association Individual All-State Festival at the University of Northern Iowa.

Pham is the first college senior around here that I've come across who lists prestigious Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., as her college choice.

Pham found Emory by typing this Google search on her computer: "Good Colleges in the South."

"I got a list and checked several web sites," Pham says. "And then I almost hyperventilated because it was too much."

Pham, a junior at Sibley-Ocheyedan at the time, put her college search out of mind, out of sight for four months. When she returned to her computer to do a repeat search, Emory University was the only institution she remembered from her first session.

Pham's parents, Jeff and Shauna Carroll, and her sister, Brenden Pham, 16, piled in the family van and headed for Atlanta one year ago. An ice storm coated Missouri that night.

"We were an hour from St. Louis and we saw an accident in front of us," Pham says. "We were just over the top of a hill, but we had to stop. Then a semi behind us couldn't stop and hit us, rear-ending our van, pushing us into the median."

Nobody was hurt, except the van, which was totaled.

"We were exactly halfway to Emory, so it wouldn't have made sense to turn around and go home," Pham remembers. "We stayed on the scene until 4 a.m. and then a nice older man took us to a Knights of Columbus Hall."

The family checked into a motel and slept for a while before resuming the trip.

Soon, Pham's thoughts about the crash disappeared in the rear-view mirror. She loved what she found in Emory, even if it was a day late.

"The campus was beautiful and I felt completely at home," she says.

Home, for Pham, was Chicago early in her life. She and her mother moved to Sibley when Marissa was 5. She spent time in both cities throughout her childhood.

A key point in her high school career took place three years ago when Josh Earll, then a senior in Sibley-Ocheyedan's FFA program, pushed his friend into the FFA experience.

"I was scared and shy as a freshman," Pham says. "I couldn't strike up a conversation with a random person."

Pham's public speaking penchant blossomed in FFA. She has since performed in plays and musicals, including the leading role of "Annie" last fall. Pham has earned an all-state nod in choir, and, on Monday, will complete the last of her three all-state speech performances.

"I remember casting her in the school play as a freshman," says B.J. Schuller, the Sibley-Ocheyedan speech coach. "She showed up to the first rehearsal with all of her lines memorized."

She's an all-stater this season in original oratory, a category that requires students to write and deliver their own 8-minute speech. Pham covers the topic of being more humane, of finding warmth in making interpersonal connections.

Connections? She made a big one with the Sibley-Ocheyedan Board of Education in December, selected by her FFA peers to lead a presentation showing the benefits of adding a second ag teacher.

It wasn't likely the place you'd expect to see a young woman of Vietnamese descent, standing before a room of adults, making the case for more ag and leadership instruction.

"I probably wouldn't have done FFA," Pham says, addressing my stereotype. "I thought it was for farm kids. I'm really glad Josh Earll was so persistent."

He's not the only one.

Says Pham, "I'm headstrong and very determined."

Her self-assessment causes me to think about her family's misfortune on the interstate in Missouri in the middle of a March night.

"I wasn't going to let that stop us," Pham says. "I'm thankful for that man who was there watching out for us.

"We rented a car and we pressed on."

TJ Smith, the subject of my favorite college-search story, is now in his fifth year as an enrollment counselor at Mount Marty College. 

Where will Marissa Pham end up? To Emory and beyond, or as far as her determination and ability will take her.

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