When Ngoc Tram Duong Nguyen left her native Vietnam and came to the United States in 2008 to study nursing, she faced many challenges inherent in moving to a new country. She spoke no English and had to learn the language. She had no family here, and so made her way virtually alone as a stranger in a strange land.
And she was legally blind.
Despite the challenges, she is now in her senior year of nursing school at the University of New Mexico and the winner of this year's Minority Nurse Scholarship.
Nguyen's blindness was a side effect of treatment after being bitten by a rabid dog when she was just a year old, she says. She slowly lost her eyesight, but no one was aware of how she struggled until she fell two stories as a result.
Further complicating the problem were two childhood eye surgeries that made everything worse. “They removed my lenses,” she says. “It was not the correct way, but the technology was so poor in Vietnam.” Even with the assistance of very thick glasses, she struggled with reading. Upon her arrival in the States at age 18, an eye doctor suggested a lens implant.
In 2009, Nguyen emerged from eye surgery with a changed life. “Now I see perfectly for the first time in my life,” she says. “I woke up from the surgery and even though the doctor told me not to cry, I couldn't help myself. I was so happy.”
Nguyen's choice of nursing was something she always aspired to.
“I chose nursing for many reasons,” she says. “In my childhood, I had such a dramatic story and I wanted to be there to help people. I needed help and I didn't receive proper help.” But, she says, she doesn't dwell on what happened to her. “It is no one's fault,” she says, noting the medical system in Vietnam wasn't equipped to deal with her problems properly.
Nguyen's father urged her to travel to the United States on a student visa to realize her dream. At first, she studied at the University of Houston where she took extensive English as a Second Language classes. She was thrilled when her application to the University of New Mexico was eventually accepted.
But being a student took more focus and energy than she realized. “Nursing school is a challenge,” she admits. “I tell my friends, 'If you have a page of material and it takes you an hour to do, it may take me three hours to do the same thing.'”
One of Nguyen's professors noted her determination in a letter of support for her scholarship application. Referencing Nguyen's A+ grade, Kathryn Ann Caudell, PhD, ACNP-BC and associate professor at the University of New Mexico College of Nursing says, “This score demonstrated her ability to grasp difficult concepts, and her tenacity at studying effectively and on a consistent basis.”
Nguyen says her very supportive family back in Vietnam is a huge motivator. “I am proud of what I am doing,” she says, “but I am proud of being my parents' daughter. I know my parents are very proud of me.”
“I feel like I grow up a lot, every day,” she says. “Especially when I am doing my clinicals and interacting with the patients, doctors, and nurses. I am learning to do things I didn't think I could do.”
And Nguyen laughs easily at all the bumps in the road that foreign students encounter. She was so excited to pass her first biology class, that she didn't realize she had to take it again to bring up her C grade. And she laughs when recalling an early restaurant experience. “They asked me how do I like my steak,” she says. “And I said, 'I like it very much!' I didn't realize until later that they were asking me how I liked it cooked!”
Her Minority Nurse scholarship was a surprise and something for which Nguyen is grateful. “It means a lot,” she says. “I was so happy to receive the letter!”
After spring graduation, Nguyen will study for the board exam and then thinks working in a pediatric nursing capacity is in her future, along with more schooling. “I just have to balance it all out,” she says.