This story is one of a series of profiles of 2012 graduates. See all senior profiles for this year here.
Raised by his grandmother in Vietnam after his mother immigrated to the United States, Vincent Nguyen nearly died from malaria in 2004. He came to Dallas at age 18 to see his mother—even though he didn’t speak any English—but their relationship then “deteriorated,” and he left home.
After being homeless and living with a friend’s family for several months in order to finish high school, Nguyen won a scholarship to the Collin College, where he earned an associate degree in science and graduated magna cum laude.
It was a long journey to Columbia, but in fall 2009, he began studying chemistry at the School of General Studies as a premed student, unsure of whether he would be able to make it financially despite the support of the University’s financial aid department and various scholarships. He spent his first semester trying to adapt to life in New York, fighting sickness and self-doubt.
“I have to admit, I am a man, but I do cry—from loneliness, the first semester, and then other things, and I thought, ‘What are you doing here?’” Nguyen recalled.
Nguyen said it was the friends he made from GS and the School of Social Work who he lived with in University housing who helped him to get through the difficulties of coming to the city alone.
“At Columbia you make friends, amazing people, and I look at my friends and how amazing they are, and that is what helped me get through first semester,” Nguyen said.
He said his gratitude for those who have supported him in his life has also led him to a deep desire to give back to Columbia and New York.
“Columbia changes you in a holistic way. It’s not just making myself become a chemistry major but it gives you something more—something of the world and myself and my place in it, and how I can do something more,” he said.
During his three years at Columbia, Nguyen did “something more” by serving as treasurer of the Vietnamese Students Association, which he cites as his “best experience.” He also volunteered with various Community Impact groups, including Partnership for the Homeless, which was important to him because he spent a period of his life homeless.
“At Columbia, you may see all the grandeur of an Ivy League, and everything is so polished, but you know, we live in New York City … There are people who don’t have a place to sleep,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen, a lifelong Christian, said that his faith has also played an important role in his life, and that he recently converted to Catholicism with his wife of one year.
For now, Nguyen is planning to move back to Texas with his wife after graduation to develop his limited liability company, VCNIA, which he will first launch in his home country. VCNIA is a medical technology export company, Nguyen said.
“I am using Vietnam as my ground zero where I am starting the venture,” he said. “And Vietnam is on the other side of the world, so if it can work there, it can grow to other countries.”
Nguyen has another dream, though: to see the world and learn about other cultures. He enthusiastically described the prospect of visiting an Amish household with friends or sharing in a Hanukkah ceremony with one of his mentors.
“Part of it is I want to learn about other culture and write about other cultures,” he said. “Maybe my life hobby is to come and see other cultures and do some collecting thing and exhibit that so others can see the beauty of those cultures ... that is something I would truly love to do.”