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2018 Wilcox High School Grad Writes $5,000 Winning Essay

Kim Ngo, a 2018 graduate of Wilcox High School, was shocked to learn last May that she had written a prize-winning essay that earned her a $5,000 college scholarship.

“I was really shocked. I didn’t think I had a chance,” said Ngo. “Now I’m more motivated to apply for other scholarships in the future and not underestimate myself.”

Ngo’s 250-word essay “Time for Payback Scholarship” was one of only 10 selected nationwide from over 500 student essays submitted to the inaugural PAYBACK Challenge by Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit helping students leave high school with financial survival skills.


Ngo heard about the essay contest through her Wilcox Senior Advancement Via Individual Determination class. As part of the class, students played the online game “PAYBACK,” designed to educate students to make wise decisions about paying for college.

The essay prompt was “How could you use the online game PAYBACK to have a conversation with your parent/guardian about paying for college?”

“I feel really blessed overall to win this scholarship,” said Ngo. “My mom was so ecstatic. She was overjoyed when she heard.”

Although Ngo was born in San Jose, her mom, Thuy Hong, was born in Vietnam.

“I grew up with a single, immigrant mom. I grew up having to be sensible about money,” said Ngo, who is working two jobs this summer — as a camp counselor at Santa Clara’s Maywood Camp Teen Center and a barista at a milk tea shop.

Ngo plans to attend San Jose State University in the fall and earn a degree in recreation management.

“Just because high school is over doesn’t mean that I’m done,” said Ngo. “My life is just starting.”

In PAYBACK, players simulate the process of applying for and attending college, learning the financial impact of each of their decisions, beginning with which college to attend. To play the free game, visit

See Ngo’s essay below.


Time for Payback Scholarship

By Kim Ngo

College is a game. Year after year, countless students and parents pay to play only to be beat by the system. They’ve trained long and hard, but only for Level 1: Getting In. Parents pay excessive amounts for tutors and SAT classes, while students strain themselves trying to pile on AP courses and extracurriculars. However, the second they pass Level 1, they’re confronted by Level 2: College Expenses. By avoiding the awkward money conversation, students and parents are unequipped to handle the monstrous bills and fees when they actually arrive. The stress piles on, rendering them powerless to do well in school. Little by little, their stats bars begin to fall and they drop out of school. If only they had a cheat sheet…

That’s where Payback comes in. Since this game mimics the inevitability of college finances, you can use it as your cheat sheet. By sitting down and playing the game, students and parents can test out simulations of the next four years, risk-free. Try taking the summer job over the graduation party. Be proactive about your choices, even before you head off to college. See what happens if you live in a quad room, but order the bigger meal plan. Learn to compromise. There are so many great lessons and strategies to take away from the game, so why not use them to your own advantage? Play the game online, beat the game in real life. Get your payback.


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