Yen Nguyen: An inside look into a international students’ role model



Zhe (Mia) Wang

Being the president of an international student career council is not an easy gig. Pursuing a doctorate degree in chemistry is also not for the faint of heart.

Yen Nguyen, Ph.D. candidate, is the president of the only international student career organization at Iowa State University.

Nguyen came to Iowa State from her home country, Vietnam, to pursue her doctorate in 2014. However, the United States was not a strange land for her.

She went to Hanoi University of Science in Hanoi, her hometown, for undergraduate study. During her four undergraduate years, Nguyen had two internship experiences at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where she served as a research assistant in 2010 and 2011.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she applied for Ph.D. study at UIUC and was accepted; however, after one year of school, she found the work overwhelming. At the same time, she suffered a lung disease which caused her energy level to drop significantly. She left the school and went home to Vietnam.

“I was just not prepared. Because [my] first two times in UIUC only were just two months, and I got help from the program coordinator and the professors,” said Nguyen. “I didn’t have total independence to study and conduct research. Heavy class work, research work and [my] health issue were a bit much for me.”

It took Nguyen one year to recharge. She applied for a Ph.D. program again in 2014 and got accepted by the department of chemistry at Iowa State.

Nguyen was born in 1989. From her youthful look, it’s hard to imagine she has dedicated her whole adult life to science, specifically chemistry.

“All the cousins of mine…attended or are currently attending…business school, and most of them work for banks or accountant firms,” Nguyen said. “I just want to do something different.”

She wanted to study science, but didn’t like math or physics. She was attracted to dealing with molecules and figuring the components.

“Almost everything in life can be explained by chemistry,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said she always wanted to experience living and studying abroad.

“For my other college classmates in Vietnam, going to college is already a good life for them, because they are not from the city, and their family don’t have a lot to offer them other than sending them to a four-year college,” said Nguyen. “But for me, my family is middle class and I’m the only child. So, they have an easier life [to be able to] support me. I don’t have as much pressure as other students in my classes. I feel like I can do whatever I want.”

Nguyen wants to do things other people don’t want to try or don’t have the opportunities to try.

“When I [am] exposed to a new thing, I always want to try it, as long as it’s positive and good for me,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen didn’t have a true passion when she first went into the scientific field, since she just wants to “do something different.” She was full of questions when she was little, so maybe that’s the start for her to choose science as her career. 

“Sometimes, our parents tell us to do a certain thing purely based on their life experience, like drinking hot liquid when you’re sick. I didn’t want to do it, because it didn’t make sense to me, and I often questioned how did adults come up with those theories.”

As she kept studying chemistry for more than a decade, she found science has helped her form a whole new perspective on life.

“I think the science work I have been doing helps me see everything clearer. However, now I’m studying and working at the science field. I am able to find explanation for almost everything, because science can be proved. That’s how science changed me, and I try to see the world scientifically.”

She also thinks an adequate scientist should be familiar with multiple fields in science. She still reads about math and physics related books in her spare time to be a versatile science student and researcher.

Nguyen will get her doctorate degree in 2019. She first wants to find a job at a professional company that applies her knowledge to practical use.

“I want to get a feel about the real world, because the stress in workforce is completely different form the stress in school environment,” she said.

She has a passion for developing cosmetic products. She thinks women always try to make themselves look better, but it’s not about how other people view them, it’s about how they want to take care of themselves. She wants to use her knowledge and skills to make women feel good and beautiful.

Lan Hu, Graduate Assistant-Researcher in ISU Chemistry department and Nguyen’s close friend, said Nguyen is always upbeat in life and that nothing can bring her down.

“She is easy going and happy all the time. She is patient and helpful with all the undergraduate students she has mentored,” said Hu. “Sometimes the research work can be really tedious and difficult, but she always keeps her head up and bring the positive vibe to her friends and co-workers.”

For her other major role as the president of the International Career Council (ICC), she is responsible for helping international students at Iowa State to find approaches and solutions regarding internships, co-ops and full time positions.

Nguyen heard about ICC in August 2017 and wanted to be a part of an organization that prepares students for work environment.

“Many of my friends were graduating the end of last year and starting to looking for jobs. I was curious about that, so I looked through the student organization website and found ICC. I registered and joined the email newsletter. I started to go to meetings and activities.”

She showed major interest and passion about the organization and career oriented topics. The president at the time decided to consider Nguyen for the next presidential candidate. From a new ICC member to the president, it only took Yen one month.

“I just have this strong curiosity for life. Most of the time, that’s the drive force for me. Try new things, do new things and be good at new things.”