The year before she came to Western as a freshman, Han Vu Gia Nguyen had moved to the United States from Vietnam with her parents. Now, just five years later, this year’s Julia McCulloch Smith award recipient for outstanding senior female is fluent in a new language, achieved significant academic and extracurricular success, and is heading to dental school in the fall.
Nguyen chose WOU because of the intimate campus environment. “I wanted to make a personal connection with the staff and students,” she said. Nguyen felt a connection to the family oriented and welcoming atmosphere of WOU and she’s glad she trusted that instinct. “The personal connection with the staff and faculty is something I value the most at WOU,” she said. “Everyone I encountered tried to make a personal connection and they go out of their way to reach out for you. I think that’s something so amazing about Western.”
To help her transition to college, and finding success during her four years at WOU, she took advantage of the support programs available. As a high school student she went through the Summer Bridge program, which is an accelerated program the summer before entering college to help develop skills for college success, introduce them to campus resources, and offers lots of fun activities so the students can get to know each other. Nguyen enjoyed her experience so much she returned to it for two summers as a peer advisor.
As a first-generation college student, Nguyen also participated in the Student Enrichment Program (SEP) on campus. “I have received a lot of support and advice from the SEP staff and I couldn’t have gotten where I am today without their support.” She credits the SEP staff with helping her raise her personal standards and inspiring her.
Nguyen received a great deal of support from her parents as well. Her parents brought her to the United States to provide her with more opportunities and encouraged her to go to college. The sacrifice her parents made inspires Nguyen to work hard and succeed. When she first began classes at WOU she struggled to understand the professors so she recorded her lectures and listened to them at home to spend time understanding the words. Studying was much harder in the beginning because it took so much time to break through the language barrier.
Now she’s graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry, and this fall she’ll be starting dental school. Nguyen was accepted into several schools and is currently deciding between her top two choices: Oregon Health & Science University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School Of Dentistry. One of her passions is helping people and taking care of their health. “I know being a dentist will give me an opportunity to do the work I want while at the same time helping people in the community,” she said.
Before starting school at the end of the summer she looks forward to returning to Vietnam for a month to visit family.
When asked what advice Nguyen has for other students facing language, financial or access barrier to college, she smiled. “I want to say to the incoming freshman: Don’t be scared to dream big. Surround yourself with supportive and positive people. Raise your standards to become the best version of yourself.”
About the award
The Julia McCulloch Smith Award is presented to the outstanding female student of the year in the memory of Smith, alumna of the class of 1895, who died in 1930. The award was first presented in 1931.
Honorable Mention: Rachel Feldhaus ’16 & Stephanie Torrez ’16