Cassandra Hsiao and her family may not speak English in a typical way, but the high school senior's talent with words has caught the attention of all the Ivy League colleges.
Last week, Hsiao, a first generation immigrant from Malaysia who lives in Walnut, California, received the exciting news that she had been accepted to not just one, but all eight Ivy League schools -- a feat few have achieved.
"It was incredible," she told ABC News. "I wasn’t home at the time, but I was Facetiming my parents and there were tears on both sides of the screen."
Hsiao, a senior at the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA), immigrated to the U.S. when she was about five years old. Her mother was born in Malaysia, while her father was from Taiwan.
Josh Wood, the director at the OCSA, praised Hsiao for her success in academics and devotion to her creative work. He said her dedication is remarkable.
"If anyone is going to do it, it’s going to be her," Wood told ABC News.
Her applications to the Ivy League colleges included not just her impressive resume, but also an essay about learning to speak English.
She talked about her family's unique ways of pronouncing English words at home, where "snake is snack and there’s no difference between cast and cash," but they understand each other perfectly. Hsiao recalled being pulled out of class to work with a speech therapist on her pronunciations and how she learned to polish her speech by participating in events.
“For me, the struggles of learning English isn’t an obvious one” Hsiao said. Instead, it’s the little things, like the subtleties of grammar rules and intonation that made her “realize her experience is unique to immigrant families.”
She detailed some of the difficulties and beauty of growing up in an immigrant household, the challenges of trying to integrate into new surroundings in the U.S.
At 17 years old, Hsiao is already an accomplished playwright, poet, writer and journalist. From a poem dedicated to Syrian refugees to her interviews with Hollywood stars like Morgan Freeman and Chris Evans, her work has been featured in many publications including, TeenReads, Jet Fuel Review and Los Angeles Times High School Insider. She has also won some awards.
Storytelling became her passion, she said.
"There’s so much power in words, the books I’ve read, the music I’ve listened to and the movies I’ve watched all had such a huge influence in my life," Hsiao said. She said she wants to write about experiences like her own, not as a blanket narrative, but as representing one of many similar experiences.
"What we see on a page, screen or stage can either limit our imagination of who we want to become or expand it," Hsiao said, referring to her passion for promoting more diversity in media.
She has one very important decision to make now: Hsiao has to choose among the eight Ivy League schools and other top colleges to which she has been accepted, including University of Southern California, Northwestern, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, U.C. Berkeley and Amherst.
Wherever she ends up, Hsiao said she wants to tell more stories of perseverance and courage and continue to build her life out of words.