Two Cambodian cousins who fled the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime were so eager for an education once they arrived in New York that they asked a Brooklyn College teacher to e-mail them math problems to solve in their spare time.
Yesterday, the two women, Sokha Pex, 37, and Sokkun Luc, 25, were awarded CUNY's Peter Jennings G.E.D. Laurel Award Scholarship for their diligence in learning English and earning their high school equivalency diplomas. Now, they are studying at Kingsborough College and pursuing associate's degrees.
The cousins stood together to receive the award yesterday after spending years apart. Both of their families fled Phnom Penh in 1975.
Ms. Pex walked for three months to the border of Vietnam. Her brother and mother died along the way. She lived there as a refugee for three years.
Ms. Luc's family escaped to France, where she lived for 12 years before her aunt took her back to a refugee camp in Vietnam so that they could win asylum to America.
The two met at a nail salon in Brooklyn owned by a relative, where they were given jobs. They have called each other "sister" ever since.
The assistant director of Brooklyn College's adult literacy program, Cheryl Georges, said she wasn't aware of their experiences as refugees before she nominated them for the award. Instead, she said she was struck by their determination to learn English, and their ultimate goal: to graduate from college.
"When they weren't at work, they were at school studying," she said. That was true even in summer, even when there were no classes to go to, she added.
They began with English as a Second Language classes at Brooklyn College, and quickly moved on to studying for their G.E.D. They even taught themselves algebra with a book they checked out from the library.
"It was totally above and beyond," Ms. Georges said. "They were just excited to be learning."
The scholarship, named posthumously after the news anchor Peter Jennings, pays $1,000 toward tuition at any CUNY school. Jennings, who didn't graduate from college, had presided over the awards ceremony each year until he died in 2005.
At the awards ceremony yesterday, Ms. Pex said that she and her cousin felt happy, but also anxious.
Their first class of the summer was starting later in the day, she said, and "I don't want to miss any class."