by Bruce Adams
Chester Thai, a senior at Episcopal Academy, is a National Merit semifinalist, a Cum Laude inductee, a key member of EA’s Mock Trial team, and has won several academic prizes at EA’s Honors Chapel this fall, including highest scholarship in the VI Form (senior class). He is a news editor of the school newspaper, the Scholium, is a leader of the Model United Nations club, and tutors students from the Steppingstone Scholars program on the weekends. Steppingstone prepares children from Philadelphia to attend high-achieving public and private schools, and according to Thai was crucial in helping to send him and his brother Anthony (now a freshman at Harvard) to Episcopal. Thai also teaches piano through the Free Music Fridays program at the Honickman Learning Center in North Philadelphia.
Bruce Adams: Your father is Chinese, born in Vietnam and was miraculously able to escape the Communist grip of that country in the early 1980s and come to America. Could you briefly tell us the story of his escape and the inspiration it provided to you?
Chester Thai: After witnessing the fall of Saigon as a teenager and living under a Communist regime for five years, my dad decided to leave Vietnam. At the time, the only way out was by illegal boats. He made the days-long journey to a town by the shore, traveling by night and hiding in the houses of organizers by day. The journey was fraught with dangers, since the Communist government was trying to prevent people from leaving the country.
After reaching and setting off on the boat, my dad had very little food and water for a week, before arriving in Thailand. He lived in a Red Cross refugee camp for two years, and eventually found his way to the United States. His story exemplifies the perseverance that I strive to emulate, and inspires me to make the most of the opportunities that he never had.
Bruce Adams: You received the Judith M. Diamondstone Prize for the Best American History Research Paper. Can you tell us a little about the topic of that paper? What was the most surprising thing you learned while doing the research for that paper?
Chester Thai: My research paper was entitled: “An Imperial Affliction: How Dreams of Conquest Collapsed in the Philippines.” It focused on the justifications for imperialism in the Philippines during the late 1800s, and how attempts at imperialism ultimately proved overly idealistic.
One of the things that struck me during my research was how much the issue of imperialism divided the nation. Many anti-imperialists felt the U.S. was contradicting its founding principles of democracy, while others wanted to make the country more powerful by imitating the colonial powers of Europe. It was a time period when the U.S. was struggling to define its own identity.
Bruce Adams: You also received the Paul Thompson Prize for highest scholarship in American History. What is your favorite period to study in American history, and why?
Chester Thai: My favorite time period to study is probably the Civil War. There were many different motivations on both sides for fighting the Civil War, and I never realized the complexity of the conflict before studying U.S. History.
Bruce Adams: You are noted as an exceptional debater. What is your favorite debate topic?
Chester Thai: I do not have one debate topic that is my favorite. However, I like topics that allow for creativity, and don’t have rigid, preset arguments. For example, one topic I enjoyed debating in our school’s JUNTO debate club was about whether the U.S. should continue space travel, because I was able to craft my own personal argument without heavily relying on statistics.
Bruce Adams: What is your favorite book, and why:
Chester Thai: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. I love the imagery he uses to describe the experiences of the soldiers, and how he pieces together themes from his different short stories.
Bruce Adams: Who is your favorite author and why?
Chester Thai: Mark Twain. He was the great American satirist, who had commentary on social issues and poked fun at all walks of society.
* Reprinted, with permission, from Main Line Media News. Read more at MainLineMediaNews.com.