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By Trying to 'Pay Back,' CNM Student Earns National Scholar Award

Just two years ago, Viet Nguyen left his native Vietnam and moved halfway across the planet to pursue his dream of becoming a college student in the United States. When he arrived, he knew very little English and had problems communicating. But a big heart translates well in any country. And as fate would have it, Nguyen says, he found the perfect place to help bring his dreams to life – CNM.

Aug 29, 2016

National Scholar Award Winner
March 2011

Just two years ago, Viet Nguyen left his native Vietnam and moved halfway across the planet to pursue his dream of becoming a college student in the United States. When he arrived, he knew very little English and had problems communicating. But a big heart translates well in any country. And as fate would have it, Nguyen says, he found the perfect place to help bring his dreams to life – CNM.

On Feb. 28, after a year-and-a-half of taking classes at CNM, Nguyen became the first CNM student to earn the New Century Scholar Award from the national Phi Theta Kappa honor society for two-year colleges. One student from each state wins the award, which will be presented to Nguyen and his fellow New Century Scholars at the annual American Association of Community Colleges Convention in New Orleans on April 11.

"I love CNM," Nguyen says. "It was not just me that won this award. The staff at CNM and the instructors at CNM helped me win this award. They deserve a lot of the credit."

The award, which includes a $2,000 stipend, is based upon grade point average, service to your community college, service to your community and proven leadership qualities. By earning the highest score in New Mexico, Nguyen will also be recognized in the national publication, the Community College Times.

Nguyen's first stop in the United States two years ago was in Salt Lake City, where he began his American college education experience at Salt Lake Community College. After finishing a term there, he took his parents advice via phone calls from Vietnam and visited a family friend from Vietnam who was living in Albuquerque. The family friend happened to be taking classes at CNM and encouraged Nguyen to stay for the summer, take classes at CNM, and see how he liked the experience. He not only liked it, he loved it.

"The people at CNM are so patient and so friendly," says Nguyen, a chemistry major with a 4.0 GPA. "The academic advisors were the first people I talked to and they helped me a lot. The instructors have been very friendly. Because of the trouble I have had with English, sometimes it was hard for me to tell them what I couldn't understand. But they listened carefully to find out what I needed help with. They encourage you."

When Nguyen first arrived in Albuquerque, he was working 12 to 14 hour days in a restaurant. He said he lost 20 pounds during those days of non-stop work for little pay. "It was," he says with a pause, "a good experience for my life." With the help of CNM staff, he has since qualified for financial aid that he says has helped tremendously.

"I feel I owe this country a lot for this opportunity to go to college and live here," he says. "I feel this is my country too now. I owe this country a lot. I'm trying to pay back. I will do whatever I can to pay back this country."

After finishing some classes at CNM this summer, Nguyen is planning to apply to medical school at the University of New Mexico to become a doctor. With that goal in mind, and his conviction to "pay back this country," Nguyen has been volunteering much of his free time to Vista Care, a hospice provider, and UNM Hospitals.

For Vista Care, he volunteers to spend time with hospice patients, which counted toward the "service to community" component for the New Century Scholar award.

"A lot of the patients don't have family, so sometimes I bring them a flower or a cake," he says. "I'll read books to them. I feed them. Some of them are too weak to speak, but when I help them, they smile at you. It's how they say thanks.

"It's an amazing experience. I hear about their stories. I provide companionship... People are looking for comfort at the end of their lives. I get really, really valuable lessons from them. I get more than I give. And it's one way I can try to pay back this country."

Nguyen says he went to college for a while in Vietnam, but "it wasn't a good education."

"My dad wanted me to come to the United States to get a better education, to become a good doctor and to have a warm heart to help people," he says.

At CNM, Nguyen is a member of Phi Theta Kappa and student government, the Executive Council of Students. He has participated in charitable food, clothing and book drives at CNM, and he was involved in the Main Campus Clean-Up Day. "We wanted to clean up and keep it a good environment to study," he says.

Of course, Nguyen has thrived in the classroom. And of course, the humble Nguyen gives credit for that to his instructors, especially his chemistry instructors.

"I'm really impressed with the knowledge of the instructors in the chemistry department," he says. "They have really affected me and I really appreciate them. I have had an English problem – it's my second language. They help me with what I couldn't understand in class."

He said he's gotten much support from chemistry instructors Jeremy Barlow and Joe Wallace.

His English instructor, Veronique Kaemerer, wrote a letter of recommendation for his New Century Scholar application. He said that she also encouraged him to read aloud in front of about 50 people at the Halloween Novel Slam last year.

"It was hard for me to stand and read in front of a crowd, but I did it," he says.

He says Sharon Gordon and Donna Trujillo from the Center for Community Programs and Partnerships also helped him and encouraged him to apply for the New Century Scholars award.

"I'm really excited to go to New Orleans (to receive his award)," he says. "It's a real honor for me. CNM is a really good place. I want to say 'thank you' to everybody who has made CNM become a really good community college."