As a girl growing up in Thailand, Sirikwan O’Gorman remembers watching her grandfather – a teacher and shaman – help those who were sick. People would come from all over to the small wooden house he’d built himself in the Phetchabun countryside.
“My grandfather was my idol,” said O’Gorman. “He had a gift for healing people. While he wasn’t a doctor, he knew a lot about medicine. I wanted to be like him.”
Years later and a country away, she’s on the brink of completing that dream. On May 8, she’ll be graduating from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Healthy Lifestyles Coaching (Health Sciences) – the first in her family to earn a college degree. She is graduating through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which offers all eligible U.S. partners full tuition reimbursement for an undergraduate degree from ASU online.
While her grandfather focused on healing the whole body, O’Gorman is going to become a dental hygienist and focus on changing lives through improving their teeth, something she saw the power of when she was working in a dental office. “Teeth are the first thing people notice in one another. Great smiles help people gain more confidence,” she said. “And it makes me happy to see other people happy.”
It’s a path her grandfather influenced in more ways than one. He had been the heart of the family and when he died in 2001, they were devastated. In the midst of her grief, O’Gorman’s mother, Sirirat, decided her family needed a fresh start away from Phetchabun. She made the difficult decision to leave O’Gorman and brother, Suppavit with their maternal grandmother as she headed to America to find work and establish a new home.
“It was a difficult time because I had to grow up faster than the other kids,” O’Gorman said. “I had to step up and take care of the family without my mom being there.”
From dirt roads to the Vegas strip
Five years later, O’Gorman’s mother returned to Thailand to retrieve her children and they moved 9,000 miles away to Las Vegas where a distant cousin lived. The big, bright city was worlds away from O’Gorman’s childhood home at the end of a quiet, unpaved road next to a cornfield in Thailand.
Then 14, O’Gorman has vivid memories of her first day at Las Vegas High School. She remembers walking the halls, searching unsuccessfully for classrooms and fumbling with her locker combination. While she had learned English at home in Thailand, it was the more formal Queens English. And that, combined with her heavy accent sometimes made it hard for classmates to understand her.
“That first day of school was really difficult and confusing. I just didn’t understand why no one understood me when I spoke,” she said. “Thankfully, the school paired me with another student who could speak Thai and English. She was a great help along with binge-watching movies to pick up on popular words and slang.”
Despite the obstacles she faced, O’Gorman was an excellent student. At home in Thailand, she had devoted hours and hours to studying. After spending a full day at school, she took additional classes in the evenings. “I wanted to work as a healthcare provider when I got older, so the classes I took always focused on the sciences.”
She graduated from high school in 2010 with straight As and enrolled in the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
“In order to afford college, I had to work part-time as a receptionist in a dental office. That’s when I became passionate about dentistry,” O’Gorman said.
But money quickly grew tight so she had to cut back on classes and took on a second job at a restaurant.
She was working as a waitress when a customer came in who would have a big impact on her life. He was a nurse at a local hospital named Kevin O’Gorman. The two fell in love and got married. He joined the Air Force and began studying to be a doctor. Soon his career required them to relocate to Bethesda, Md.
Adjusting to East Coast living
Once again, O’Gorman found herself starting over in a new place. She felt like she had found home when she was with her husband, but his medical rotations sometimes took him away for months at a time. Sometimes she’d make Thai food to soothe her homesickness.
“I struggled at first because I had never experienced East Coast weather, missed my husband, mother and brother,” she said.
But then she started a new job as a barista and found home in an unexpected place – among her Starbucks team. “Working at Starbucks, I didn’t feel so alone,” she said.
Soon she was promoted to shift supervisor, a job where she thrived.
“Sirikwan had a great rapport with all of the store partners and with me,” said Mylyn Ballesteros, the store manager of the Starbucks where O’Gorman worked. “She was a great leader and was always there to support me to improve the store.”
O’Gorman’s work schedule at Starbucks allowed the flexibility to resume her studies at Montgomery Community College, but Ballesteros pushed hard for her to take advantage of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan.
“Starbucks is offering this great benefit to help partners grow in life and that’s just what I wanted for Sirikwan,” added Ballesteros. “I knew that she would be successful.”
A little more than a year ago, O’Gorman began taking classes through the program.
“I always wanted to graduate with my bachelor’s degree and Starbucks College Achievement Plan was that golden opportunity for me to finally achieve my goal,” O’Gorman said.
Her mom and husband both say they are incredibly proud of her. “My wife has grown into a confident woman who has demonstrated significant perseverance to achieve her goals and dreams,” said Kevin O’Gorman.
Now, O’Gorman is in the midst of another transition. Her husband was transferred to Texas and last week she moved across the country to join him. It meant having to leave her Starbucks family behind in Maryland, but she’s embracing the next chapter and will be looking for work in her new field as a dental hygienist, an in-demand occupation that will allow her to move wherever her husband settles into his career.
“I have great memories of childhood even though there were some hardships along the way. It made me strong and independent and helped me to become who I am today. That’s something I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
At Arizona State University’s spring graduation exercises May 8 in Tempe, Arizona, Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz will give his first-ever commencement address. More than 260 partners are graduating from ASU, the biggest-yet partner graduating class. Starbucks College Achievement Plan graduates will be in the audience. Commencement will be streamed live at 7:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (7:30 p.m Pacific Time)at http://www.ustream.tv/asutv.
Meet other partner-graduates:
Alexander Nunes, an immigrant from Jamaica, is the first in his family to graduate from college – and he’s ready to change the world.
Tragedy derailed Laura Fobes’ first shot at a college degree; now the 42-year-old mother of three will walk across the stage in Tempe.