For mom: First generation American blazes academic trail
by Lisa Butterworth | Special to the Courier
Montclair resident Cindy Nguyen was only 15 years old when she left high school because, as she said, it “was kind of boring.” So, Nguyen started college instead, and was admitted to California State University, Los Angeles through its Honors College Early Entrance Program.
In May the now-20-year-old graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry and addressed her fellow 2023 graduates as one of the school’s commencement ceremony student speakers. How did she spend the days after graduation? “Sleeping,” she said with a laugh. “It’s like the best week of my life.”
It’s a well-deserved break for Nguyen, who, in addition to acing her regular classes, has been assisting with lab research at Cal State LA, is the recipient of numerous scholarships (including the Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship), and recently received the Edison STEM-Net Research Fellowship. Nguyen has also served as the president of the chemistry and biochemistry club, as a peer health educator, as an ambassador for the honors college, and has been interning at City of Hope since January, where her research in cryopreserving stem cells could help lead to better treatment for many diseases.
It’s a laundry list of accomplishments that have made Nguyen’s parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam, very proud. Especially her mother, whom Nguyen poignantly thanked in her commencement speech, asking the audience to give her mom a round of applause.
“I think a big part of her upbringing inspired my upbringing because she grew up in Vietnam in a very rural farm area during the Vietnam War,” Nguyen said. “My mom dropped out in the Vietnamese equivalent of third grade because she couldn’t afford to go to school anymore — it’s not like the U.S., where everybody gets free K through 12 education.” After Nguyen’s grandfather was drafted in the war, her mother’s help at home was even more crucial. “She’s the oldest in her family, so she had five other siblings to think about and take care of.”
Nguyen’s mom came to the U.S. in 1995 as part of the Humanitarian Operation Program, taking classes, working long hours at a low-paying job, and living in a two-bedroom apartment with five other people. She chose to settle in Montclair because someone from her community in Vietnam had already immigrated there, and told her it was nice. “She says that giving me all these opportunities in the U.S. is enough justification for her sacrifices,” Nguyen said.
It has not always been an easy path for Nguyen, however. As a first-generation college student, she had no idea how to navigate higher education. And starting so young presented its own challenges. But the driving factor behind her motivation might surprise you: “Spite,” she said with a laugh. When Nguyen told her family she wanted to drop out of high school to attend college, she was met with some initial resistance from concerned relatives. “When I first started college, my uncle was like, I don’t think she can do it. She’s 15, she doesn’t have the high school knowledge criteria, she has to commute an hour away, she doesn’t know L.A., it’s going to be hard,’” Nguyen said. “I heard that, and I was like, I’m proving him wrong; I’m going to excel. So I did. It’s funny because if you talk to my uncle now, he’ll be like, ‘She’s so amazing! I knew she could do it.’”
Nguyen’s interest in biochemistry began during her freshman year when she attended an event where several professors gave presentations about their research. Nguyen decided research was what she really wanted to do; she immediately went home and read through the bios of every Cal State LA professor.
It was Dr. Xin Wen’s research on proteins at the intersection of biology and chemistry that caught her eye. After meeting with the professor, Nguyen asked if she could work in her lab. It was an experience that forged her trajectory.
“I was learning all these new things, I was interacting with all these people, and I really liked how collaborative everything was because in the classroom it can be a little competitive,” Nguyen said. “Whenever I needed help, someone was there, and they were really supportive. I was like, ‘Perfect, I’m staying here forever.’”
Growing up, Nguyen had always wanted to become a doctor, a desire that stemmed from acting as her mother’s translator during medical appointments. “I could see my mom’s interactions with these doctors, and it’d be really frustrating because of the cultural barrier, but also the language barrier,” Nguyen said. “I had always thought, oh, if I’m a doctor, I speak Vietnamese and I’d be able to help people like my mom. I’ve also realized that the human body is so, so cool. So combining my passion for science and also my desire to help people in my community led me to the medical field.”
But Nguyen’s love of biochemical research threw a wrench in her plan — should she pursue a medical degree as she originally planned, or apply to grad school and research her way to a Ph.D.? “Then I had the bright idea to combine them. Why do I have to choose?” Nguyen said. Her current plan is to apply to a combined MD-Ph.D. program.
In the meantime, she’ll continue to work as a research technician in Dr. Wen’s lab at Cal State LA, stay on as an intern at City of Hope, and she’ll also work part-time as a medical scribe at an orthopedic center in Pasadena.
She has plans for fun too — beach days with her cousin, knitting and making ceramics, two of her favorite pastimes, and as a diehard “Swiftie” she’ll be attending Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour in August. And though some of her advisors have expressed reservations about the intense and lengthy commitment of a combined MD-Ph.D. program, Nguyen’s pretty adept at proving people wrong.
“When I think about why I am trying to get into grad school and why I’m trying to do more research and why I’m trying to become a doctor, I think of my mom, because all of her sacrifices have resulted in me living and growing up in the United States, which is across the world from where my mom wanted to be,” Nguyen said. “I want to make it so she doesn’t regret coming.”