Olivia Nguyen turned family experience into passion for helping prepare first-generation students for college.
May 5, 2017
By Joy Tipping
DALLAS (SMU) – As a child, Olivia Nguyen saw her immigrant Vietnamese parents struggle with adjusting to a country where they didn’t know the language or culture. Because both wanted higher education, they also had to deal with the unfamiliar vernacular and customs of college.
Nguyen, a senior in SMU’s Dedman College majoring in biology and world languages (French and Chinese), has taken knowledge of her parents’ challenges to help others facing the same sorts of hardships — specifically, high school students who’ll be first-generation college students. She’s a student leader in SMU’s College Bound program, which prepares high schoolers for the admissions process and gives them tools for campus success.
Nguyen’s parents escaped their home country in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. They settled first in Richardson, then Plano. They knew very limited English when they arrived in the U.S. “They wanted to get more education, so they were thrown into college and it was a difficult adjustment,” she says. “They had all the same classes as other students, no special concessions, and they faced some cultural discrimination.” Both parents earned degrees, her mom from Richland College and her dad from the University of Texas at Dallas.
At SMU, Nguyen is a President’s Scholar and a finalist for the Fulbright Scholar Program, and plans to attend McGovern Medical School, part of the UT Health Science Center at Houston.
“SMU has given me so many opportunities to grow as a person, and to have a host of new experiences,” Nguyen says. “Through my scholarship, I have been able to study abroad twice, in Korea and China, as well as to go to France on an independent research project. These trips have allowed me to experience cultural immersion and expanded my horizons far beyond my expectations.”
Also, she adds, “Because of the many volunteer opportunities offered through SMU, I have been able to use my knowledge and skills to help other people succeed or grow.”
Nguyen had tutored kids as a high school student, and after arriving at SMU she was drawn to and began volunteering with the College Bound program, which works with 9th through 12th-graders at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas. By participating in SMU’s Big Ideas Business Plan competition, she was able to win financial support to expand the program that had been started by SMU students in 2014.
“We do one-on-one tutoring most Saturdays throughout a semester,” Nguyen says. “We tutor SAT prep for the math and verbal sections, an hour of math and an hour of verbal a week. Then we have 30 minutes of college awareness — financial aid forms, resumes, how to write an essay. We also talk about the culture of college, but that’s more informal.” She has tutored about 20 students, she says.
Although the College Bound kids are typically good students, she says, sometimes it’s hard to engage them, especially as the end of the school year approaches. “We’ve tried to incorporate more interactive things, like learning games and college trips to keep them interested.”
These students face some of the same challenges that her parents faced, she says, particularly “systemic racial injustices.” Most were born here or moved here while quite young, and most speak fluent English. “But especially now, in this political climate, a lot of them are worried,” she says. “I had one kid tell me they were afraid their family members might get deported. That’s so hard to hear. We talk about living in a post-racist society, but discrimination can be such a subtle thing. It’s not about explicit attitudes and behavior so much as whispers and looks.”
Nguyen knows the students in the College Bound program may face the same kind of attitudes and behavior on a college campus. “We try to prepare them,” she adds.
The rewards of College Bound make the investment of time and energy worthwhile, she says, when participants in the program are admitted into college. “They love letting us know when they get in. Education is the key to opportunity, and it’s great to see what they aim for.”