Despite much adversity in her life, a South Vietnamese immigrant has been undaunted in the pursuit of her academic dreams and is now one of the California State University system’s inspiring students.
At its September board meeting, the CSU Board of Trustees honored Wilmington resident Phoung Nguyen, a California State University, Dominguez Hills alumnae and current graduate student, as the university’s recipient of the William Randolph Heart/CSU Trustee Award for Outstanding Achievement for 2010. The award is given each year to one student from each of the 23 CSU campuses in recognition of their academic success in the face of hardships.
Nguyen’s story is marked by near death as an infant, setbacks to her education due to her limited English skills when she immigrated to the United States at the age of 9, and personal tragedies in recent years that almost caused her to abandon her studies at CSU Dominguez Hills and her dream of becoming a math teacher. But she persevered each time to emerge stronger than ever and determined to achieve her goals.
Nguyen graduated from CSU Dominguez Hills in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in math education and completed the requirements for her teaching credential last semester. She currently is a full-time teacher at John C. Fremont High School in Los Angeles.
She said that receiving the Hearst Scholar award will help her fulfill another goal, becoming the first in her family to earn a master’s degree. This semester she is enrolled in a master’s in teaching mathematics program through the Department of Mathematics at CSU Dominguez Hills.
“It will bring honor to me and honor to my parents. And I can show off a little to my cousins too,” she said. “They work as accountants, but they don’t have their master’s degrees. I’ll be the first one.”
Along with a $3,000 scholarship award, Hearst Scholars received a technology package from Sony, including a Vaio Notebook, a Bloggie digital camera, and supporting software. For more information on the William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement, visit www.calstate.edu/foundation/hearst.
Phoung Nguyen Biography
Born in South Vietnam in 1982, Nguyen nearly died before her first birthday when an outbreak of malaria struck her village of Long Khanh. She was the only infant out of 30 in the village to survive.
Nguyen and her family moved to the United States in 1991, when Nguyen was 9 years old. Her father, a South Vietnamese fighter pilot during the Vietnam War who had been captured after the 1975 Fall of Saigon and spent seven years in a North Vietnamese reeducation camp, qualified the family to emigrate from Vietnam under the late 1980s and early ’90s Orderly Departure Program.
Held back two U.S. grade levels due to her limited English, Nguyen went on graduate in the top 15 at Narbonne High School in Harbor City at the age of 19. She showed an early aptitude for math, and when she was accepted at CSU Dominguez Hills she chose to major in that subject. Nguyen said that at first, her family was skeptical about her pursuing a degree in math, which was traditionally considered a male-dominated field.
“I was slow in learning,” she recalled. “All of my cousins were really fast learners. I wanted to do math… but my family said, ‘You’re not bright.’ The challenge that I had to overcome is that they believed that because I am a female I cannot be a mathematician, but I proved to them that is not true.”
Two personal tragedies in the past four years nearly put a halt to her education, but she said she became determined to attain the dream she’d had since she was young — to become a teacher.
“When I was 6 or 7, I would watch my father every morning writing on the board, so I wanted to be a teacher,” she said of her father who was a teacher in their village after returning from the reeducation camps, and now teaches computer technology at Los Angeles Harbor College. “After he would teach, I would take the chalkboard and teach my imaginary students.”
Today she is teaching real students at John C. Fremont High School after receiving her bachelor’s degree in math education from CSU Dominguez Hills in 2009 completing her credential program this past spring. This semester she began classes toward her master’s degree in teaching mathematics.
Nguyen hopes to give others a chance to reach their dreams. She said she would like to start college scholarships for victims of violent crime and theft, and children of U.S. military personnel who have sustained wartime injuries, and one day establish a school for victims of human trafficking.