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SOUTH SIOUX CITY | Two years ago, Britney Vongdara's dreams didn't really include crossing the border out of Nebraska.

She figured she'd go to college in Omaha or Lincoln and study social sciences, stay close to her family.

But a couple of major life experiences -- one tragic, the other eye-opening -- led the 18-year-old to re-examine those dreams and think way beyond her borders, both literally and figuratively.

After she receives her diploma Sunday as one of South Sioux City High School's 290 graduates, Vongdara will turn her focus toward attending Harvard University in the fall and the opportunities that she imagines that experience will open for her. It's a path that is so much different than the one she once envisioned.

"I feel like a lot of things happen out of luck," she said. "Things will happen, but you need to decide what to do."

As a 16-year-old sophomore, Vongdara had to decide how to move forward after her mother died unexpectedly. Mone Baccam was diagnosed with ovarian cancer during a regular checkup on Dec. 23, 2014. She died less than three weeks later at age 47 on Jan. 9, 2015, before treatments could begin.

Vongdara was thrust into an adult role. Neither her father, Phat Vongdara, who came to the United States as a refugee from Laos in the 1980s, nor her stepfather, Jaime Bolanos, who moved here from Mexico seeking better opportunities, speak English well. Her older brother, Christian, was having a hard time with their mother's death. So it was up to Britney to help with the funeral arrangements, deal with Social Security and other important legal matters after her mother's death.

"At first, I didn't really react," Vongdara said. "I didn't go through the grieving process until a couple months later. When I had to make real-life decisions, it hit me."

Not only had Vongdara lost her mother, she also had lost one of her main supporters. Vongdara had always dreamed of traveling to India, something her mother supported and encouraged her to do if she earned the money for such a trip.

As a junior, Vongdara learned about the National Geographic Student Expeditions program, which offers high school students trips throughout the world with National Geographic photographers and scientists. Vongdara applied and was accepted. She spent three weeks in India last summer researching the country's many cultures and returned home a different person.

"I think I started to feel more confident. I feel like I had something to say," she said.

In the fall, she looked beyond Nebraska colleges and applied to prestigious universities: Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, Stanford and the University of Chicago. She was accepted to both Harvard and Yale. After visiting both campuses in April, she chose to attend Harvard.

There, Vongdara will decide between majoring in maybe physics or environmental science. She plans to minor in visual and environmental studies.

Vongdara speaks excitedly about the whole experience that awaits her, how she's looking forward to stretching her boundaries and adapting to circumstances outside her comfort zone.

The opportunities that await her make Vongdara think about her mother, who had to drop out of college after only two months to care for her sick mother. She never was able to return.

"I used to feel pretty guilty about it, like I didn't deserve this because of what happened to my mom," Vongdara said. "But she would be so happy about this. She was always my academic cheerleader.

"She would have been so proud. She would be so happy that I was living the dream she wanted."

The trip to India and the acceptance into Harvard have given Vongdara a chance to reflect. If her mother hadn't died, Vongdara might now be making plans to attend college just a quick drive from home rather than halfway across the country.

"I feel like losing Mom made me more mature," she said, "so I wanted to matter more and learn more and find out how I fit into the world."

It's safe to say Vongdara has found her fit. It's just somewhere much farther away than she had dreamed.


Court reporter

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