A First Generation Vietnamese-American Medical Student Matches at University of Colorado
By Jamie Talan
June 1, 2023
Cecilia Nguyen grew up in a very traditional Vietnamese family. Her father fled South Vietnam in 1982, seven years after the government collapsed, and obtained a refugee visa to immigrate to America.
A decade later he returned to see his family, and friends introduced him to his future wife, Cecilia's mother. When he returned two years later, she abandoned medical school and her dream of becoming a doctor, and they married. With her visa in hand, they flew to her new home in Maryland.
By the time Cecelia was born, her father had worked his way up from a ninth-grade education in Vietnam to the University of Maryland, where he earned an engineering degree, and worked for NASA. Her mother also went back to college, earned a degree in computer science, and learned English; she now works in IT for the federal government.
The couple enrolled their daughter in a private elementary school, where Cecilia was the only Asian person in her class. Her lunch box was packed with the foods of her parents' homeland, but the smell of her mother's home-cooked lunches made her feel ashamed. It wasn't until high school that Cecilia had her first experience being part of a diverse population, and she began to embrace her culture.
With an interest in science and math, she tested for and earned admittance to a magnet school, where she realized most of the students shared the same goal of becoming a doctor. She was accepted into the University of Maryland College Park, and there, her Vietnamese roots took hold. Cecilia joined a conversation group to teach English to students and community members. (Her parents belonged to similar groups when they were in college.) She applied to medical school at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, where she went on to form another conversation group to teach English.
Cecilia's interest in neurology grew slowly. It wasn't until her third year that she found excitement in every symptom, procedure, test, and treatment that was part of her neurology rotation in the outpatient clinic.
“Everything I did was about forming a bond with the patient,” she recalled. “I understood that many patients have chronic diseases, and in my future practice, we would be together for a long time. I loved knowing that I could help improve their quality of life.”
Spending her fourth year on an inpatient stroke and general neurology service sealed her future. One day, as she cared for a severely ill patient who experienced an anoxic brain injury, the attending physician pulled up his scan and showed Cecilia. Shaking his head, he said, “His recovery is not good.”
The next day, she saw the patient walking and talking in the hall. “You would have thought he just got over something as minor as a cold,” Cecilia said. “I was amazed.”
She knew she could spend her career taking care of patients in a general neurology practice and looked into residencies in the western US.
Her parents, boyfriend, and best friend traveled to share Match Day with her. She opened the envelope and learned she had matched to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “It was a perfect day,” she said.