UC alum finds Vietnamese heritage through Fulbright

UC medical sciences grad continues cultural awareness on Fulbright to Vietnam

Along one student’s journey to becoming a physician, she developed a passion for learning diverse healing strategies from cultures around the world — beginning with her own culture — as a Fulbright Student Grantee to Vietnam.

“As an American child of Vietnamese refugees I never totally understood our culture,” says Erika Nguyen, a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s medical sciences undergraduate program. “But when I saw other people on UC’s campus celebrating their heritage and sharing their Vietnamese cultural awareness I really wanted to get more involved.” 

Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Nguyen says she is like many American students from international backgrounds who have a hunger to discover more about their family heritage and meet folks from similar cultures.

Enter UC’s Vietnamese Student Association (VSA), focusing on supporting Vietnamese international students.

As a freshman, Nguyen (on right) joined UC's Vietnamese Student Association to connect with other Vietnamese students and learn more about her family's culture. By the time she was a senior, Nguyen was UC VSA's president.

“From the very beginning, UC was always a place where I could celebrate my culture and be in solidarity with other Vietnamese Americans whose parents went through similar experiences,” says Nguyen, who eventually became president of UC’s VSA in her senior year.

“Spending my Fulbright year as an English teaching assistant (ETA) will help me become more immersed in the Vietnamese culture and history and encourage others to learn more about where they come from.”

Nguyen is one of four UC students granted Fulbright U.S. student scholarships this year. Others include Jeffrey Banks, study/research grant to Old Corinth and Athens, Greece; Mia Turnbull, English teaching assistant in Spain and Dylan David, study/research grant to Trinidad. Also, Morgan Dent was awarded a Fulbright UK Summer Institute grant to Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. (UC News will be featuring all five awardees in the coming weeks.)

Since its inception in 1946, the Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the largest nationwide exchange organization offering opportunities for students and young professionals to engage in international graduate study, advanced research and teaching. 

Currently operating in 140 countries around the globe, the program awards approximately 2,000 grants annually in all fields of study and aligns with UC’s Next Lives Here strategic direction for academic excellence.

Fulbright really values cultural exchange and learning from each other, which makes us all a little more understanding of one another.

Erika Nguyen Graduate of UC CoM's Undergraduate Medical Sciences Program

Keen collaboration

Six Vietnamese students stand together on a stage at a nonprofit fund raiser.

As part of the Union of VSA Midwest, Nguyen served as a collective philanthropy project chair in charge of sharing information about and raising money for the nonprofit Children of Vietnam. They raised over $18,000 to provide education, housing, and healthcare for Vietnamese students living with disabilities or in poverty.

As part of the UC College of Medicine’s unique medical sciences undergraduate program, the first four-year program of its kind in the nation, Nguyen had the opportunity to work in medical and scientific research right off the bat. “With the program’s intimate class sizes and one-on-one atmosphere we were encouraged to create our own experiences,” she says.

Because of UC’s strong collaboration and close proximity to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC), Nguyen successfully weaved her early work in the Fumika Hamada Lab in CCHMC’s Department of Ophthalmology with her regular classes.

“My first lab project at Children’s was looking at starvation and recovery in [a] species of flies,” says Nguyen. “That early experience really opened my eyes to the intricacies of microscopic research.” 

And it didn’t stop there. Her academic growth spilled over into research projects on UC’s main campus. There she completed background work for advocacy groups in UC’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies programs where she says she gained a particularly critical insight into the inequities of health care.  

“I analyzed interviews with HIV-positive black women in Cincinnati while working with professor Carolette Norwood on her book project titled, ‘Mapping the Intersection of Violence on Black Women’s Sexual Health within the Jim Crow Geographies of Cincinnati Neighborhoods,’” claims Nguyen, who also feels like it is her responsibility as an Asian woman to learn more about other minorities and what they are going through.

“Our investigation of the data revealed a surprisingly high incidence of structural violence  in these women’s lives, a violence created from living within a systemically racist society.” 

Nguyen’s work with the professor’s research helped shed a keen light on the toxic effects of systemic inequality and later became a presentation for her senior capstone project.

Cultural insight, better health care

UC's Erika Nguyen stands in frint of France's Eiffel Tower smiling.

learning French gave Nguyen the opportunity to participate in a cross-cultural research program with the University of Bordeaux (UB) in France. There, she collaborated with UB master’s students on a project, "Health Issues in the Syrian Refugee Crisis,” learning how to adapt to a new educational setting in a different country.

But it was while studying French as a foreign language where Nguyen discovered how impactful a comprehensive understanding of other cultures can be for helping children and patients in a medical setting.

“After realizing how much I loved languages, I searched out an experiential learning opportunity on my own at Cincinnati’s Academy of World Languages,” says Nguyen. “Their goal is to teach critical language skills to elementary and middle school students to give them a more global perspective and prepare them for a more globally linked society.”

By the time she received her UC Bachelor of Medical Sciences degree with a Certificate in Minority Health, Nguyen had earned several scholarships and awards and had completed six work/study programs, including her current paid position as a medical scribe in CCHMCs dermatology clinic.

“[English teaching assistant] applicants represent a diversity of majors and professional aspirations,” says Jenny Hyest, director of UC’s Office of Nationally Competitive Awards. “As a medical sciences major who plans to attend medical school, [Erika] is a great example of that. She doesn’t plan to pursue a teaching career, but her experience in tutoring and international student support made her a terrific candidate for the program.”

Before Nguyen starts her Fulbright in Vietnam next January she is applying to medical schools around the country where she hopes to earn a medical degree or doctor of osteopathy.

“Fulbright really values cultural exchange and learning from each other, which makes us all a little more understanding of one another,” says Nguyen. “And spending next year in Vietnam will help enhance my cultural awareness and ability to help people of all different backgrounds.”


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Featured image at top: Erika Nguyen and a fellow student member attend the Midwest VSA Leadership Summit. All photos/provided

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