There was a time UND student Michelle Nguyen considered dropping out.
Her family had financial trouble, but the first-generation student didn’t falter. It was just one more obstacle for her to overcome.
The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, both of whom work in Eden Prairie, Minn., to support a family of six, Nguyen has faced many obstacles in her life.
I was just going to drop out of school and go work with my parents. I didn’t know what I else I could do.
Nguyen’s story goes all the way back to the Vietnam War when her father, Michael, grew up in a family with 16 brothers and sisters. To help support the family, he walked many miles each day to sell ice cream. After a series of ordeals and misfortunes, Michael made his way to the U.S., where he eventually saved enough money to bring his wife, Diana, and their two sons to America.
Although Nguyen and her younger brother were born in the U.S., they grew up speaking only Vietnamese at home.
“When I went to school, it was like, ‘Why don’t these kids speak Vietnamese?’” she recalled.
Even after she learned English, she continued to struggle with reading comprehension. But none of that stopped her from taking up figure skating, getting involved in clubs, holding a job or being elected Student Council president at Eden Prairie High School.
As a high school junior, Nguyen suffered a back injury that, at first, didn’t seem serious.
“The next morning when I woke up, I couldn’t feel from my hips down to my toes. I was temporarily paralyzed,” she said. “I was in my bed screaming, ‘Dad! Mom! I can’t feel my legs! I can’t skate!’ My mom looked at me and said, ‘You can’t walk!’”
The injury forced Nguyen to give up her dream of becoming a professional figure skater, so she channeled her energy into other efforts, such as successfully managing the campaign of one of her teachers who successfully ran for a seat in the Minnesota Legislature.
However, at UND, Nguyen missed skating so much that she tried out for the University’s hockey cheer team. It was a challenge because she’d never been a cheerleader.
Still, Nguyen said it was like a dream come true.
“Now I get to skate at Ralph Engelstad Arena, a feeling that can’t be beat,” she said. “Every single time I step foot onto the ice, I have chills. I’m like a little kid at Disney World.”
But there were other more serious challenges at UND. Nguyen faced the possibility of dropping out because of her parents’ financial difficulties — caused by an injury that prevented her father from working.
“I was just going to drop out of school and go work with my parents,” Nguyen said. “I didn’t know what I else I could do.”
But again, she persevered. With help from Yee Han Chu, UND’s academic support and fellowship opportunities coordinator, Nguyen applied for a national scholarship — along with more than 7,000 other students from around the country.
Nguyen was one of only 22 who received the annual $10,000 renewable Dream Award scholarship. She was the Scholarship America Dream Award student story of the year in 2019. She also was awarded a second national scholarship through the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Program for students planning to complete a doctorate. The experience changed her perspective on how she intends to live her life.
“I want to be a role model for first-generation students, the families of refugees and immigrants, and anyone who aspires to receive an education,” she said. “I don’t want to just be an advocate. I want to be a person who actually does something about it.”
After graduating next year, Nguyen hopes to pursue a doctorate in economics, teaching the subject she loves and helping others learn about national scholarship opportunities. She’s been accepted to the London School of Economics summer program. Nguyen credits the inspiration provided by her parents and her mentors at UND with helping her to persevere and recognize the value of her education.
“I knew I didn’t have much, and I knew that my parents sacrificed so much,” Nguyen said. “If there was one thing I had going for me, it was my education. Education is the most powerful tool that we can ever have. It’s the strongest thing I have going for me. That’s what kept me going.”