Sisi Virasak’s first term of higher education made her think twice about whether she was ready.
“I didn’t realize that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did,” said Virasak, who received a degree in computer science with a minor in chemistry. “I questioned if I belonged, because I felt you have to be smart, and I didn’t think I was smart, you know? The whole self-doubt.”
Mentors helped make the difference for Virasak, from the women who taught her middle and high school computer classes to the tutors at the university’s learning center. Now, as a computer science instructor at Linn-Benton Community College, she works hard to be that mentor for everyone in her class.
“Because of the struggles I went through, I can set the pathway for the younger generation,” she said. “They see someone like me – an immigrant from Laos – and say, ‘She did it. I can do it too.’ It just takes hard work and having a good mentor and people to support and inspire you.”
Born in Laos, the youngest of five children, Virasak and her family lived in a refugee camp before a sponsor from First Congregational Church in Corvallis brought them to the United States. It was 1979, and she was five years old.
Virasak doesn’t recall much about those early days. She remembers her mother insisting attending school was a privilege — she hadn’t been able to go, nor had Virasak’s father — and that it was important to work hard.
So Virasak did. School didn’t come easily for her, she said, but she graduated from Philomath High School and studied hard at OSU. After graduation, she took a job at Intel.
Virasak worked at Intel for nine years and expected to stay. She was surprised to find that something felt like it was missing. She wasn’t as happy as she thought she would be.
Then in 2012, a brother who worked at LBCC mentioned the Benton Center in Corvallis was looking for community education instructors. Virasak was going on sabbatical and looking for something to do. She applied to teach an introductory computer class. The missing piece slipped into place.
“Being able to help students, share knowledge – it was that ‘aha’ moment. I felt like I belonged in teaching,” she said.
Virasak moved in 2015 to part-time computer instructor at the main campus in Albany. She became full time in 2019.
Today, Virasak teaches computer science, computer information systems and networking, and recently became certified to teach the new cybersecurity operations program. She helps students learn to be both skilled technology users – how to guard their personal information and to operate social media accounts – and to understand how the technology actually works.
She loves teaching at the community college level, she said, “because we have the nontraditional students, and I was the nontraditional student.”
She appreciates students who learn easily, but is even more excited about working with the ones who find it challenging.
“It’s teaching the students who don’t have internet, or don’t have a house, or who have taken a break from school for 25 years and are coming back, or have never touched a computer,” she said. “Those are the students I learn from the most, because it allows me to find creative ways to help them.”
“I learn a lot from students like that, and I really appreciate it, because it allows me, as an instructor, to grow,” she said. “That’s what academia is all about: continually learning.”
This story originally appeared here.