When Lee Bui stepped off of his 20-hour flight from Vietnam to Texas, he was more than a little surprised by his first moments in America. Everything about Texas shocked him: from the distance between cities, to the absence of skyscrapers, to the radiating heat, to the necessity of a car to travel. It was certainly a departure from the bright lights, thick traffic, and rich color of his home: Ho Chi Minh City.

Four years have passed since Lee first landed. After graduating from college in Texas, he’s made a home for himself in Brooklyn. He works in Manhattan as a videographer for a heliport company. His journey of thousands of miles from Vietnam to Texas to New York was made possible, in part, by a single decision — taking the TOEFL® test.

Learning English was a priority in the public schools Lee attended in Vietnam. There, he learned the fundamentals of the language: verbs, nouns, and sentence construction.

Lee explained that when 10th grade started, he enrolled in a private English school in Vietnam to study more intensively. At his mother’s urging, he took classes that prepared him for the SAT and the TOEFL test, an English language test recognized by more than 130 countries. After all, he had started to consider living and studying abroad for college — a dream that many of his classmates shared.

Studying abroad is a life-changing opportunity for many in Vietnam, who hope that an American college experience will afford them the knowledge to succeed, while still providing flexibility as their interests grow and change.

Lee understands this more than anyone. He took the TOEFL test and was accepted into a number of American universities. Unsure of what he wanted to study, he initially followed the suggestions of his parents and studied accounting for two years, before deciding his longtime interest in art would prevail. He rejected the idea that a career in a creative field would be difficult and decided to major in film — his true passion. If Lee had stayed in Vietnam and studied business, it would’ve been nearly impossible for him to change his major. Attending an American university allowed him greater freedom and flexibility during his college years.

Photo by @alexstelma

For Lee, the TOEFL test — and the chance to study and live abroad — was a gateway to his dream. He encourages other students to take it, even if their goals are to travel and explore another country, not just attend a university. He notes that having an English certification is great for a career and that the test encouraged him to practice his English as much as possible. To prepare, he studied the textbook provided, listened to English songs and TV shows, and tried to talk with as many people as possible. This made the transition from Vietnam to Texas, and later, New York seamless, on the language front.

Lee’s ultimate dream is to be a director, but he’s open to other avenues in the creative field. He is well on his way to achieving his goal of working in film, thanks to his time in Texas, and the TOEFL test that started it all.

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