By Cindy Cantrell
When David Nguyen arrived to celebrate his commencement from UMass Lowell on May 13, the graduation ritual looked a little different.
The 24-year-old Everett resident waited briefly in line before scanning a QR code, which prompted his name to be announced. He then picked up a diploma cover, strode across the stage, and posed for a photo, socially distanced from Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney and Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences Dean Shortie McKinney.
Yet the fact that Nguyen concluded his college career during the most unusual of times is fitting. After all, he arrived at this point on a road significantly less traveled.
Nguyen, bilingual in English and Vietnamese, is a first-generation college student who is used to overcoming barriers associated with being a person of color. He is also breaking down gender walls in the historically female-dominated field of nursing. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12 percent of registered nurses are men, up from 2.7 percent in 1970.
But the reason he was awarded a UMass Lowell Chancellor’s Medal for Student Service extends beyond the classroom. According to Mazen El Ghaziri, associate chair and assistant professor of nursing in the Zuckerberg College, the honor is well deserved.
“David always goes the extra miles – not mile, but miles – in contributing to the school and UMass Lowell community,” El Ghaziri said. “The core of the nursing profession is caring grounded in science, from the first hello at a patient’s door to more complicated nursing skills delivered while respecting a client holistically. David is not only a successful student, but his concern for those who are vulnerable is palpable. He’ll do great things.”
In fact, Nguyen developed an interest in health care through personal experience. At age 5, he was evaluated at multiple medical facilities until Boston Children’s Hospital successfully diagnosed and treated him for a complicated medical disorder that required lengthy hospitalization and regular follow-ups. The manner in which the nursing staff extended their compassionate care to his parents, who didn’t speak English, during such a frightening time, made an impression on them all.
“To this day,” Nguyen said, “my mom talks about how she didn’t know where to go for food, and the staff brought her some.”
The family’s second medical crisis occurred seven years later, when 12-year-old Nguyen acted as an advocate and translator for his extended family while his grandmother was treated for cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“I saw how hard the nurses worked to advocate for her to the doctors, and to build relationships with me and my grandmother, and I knew that nursing was my calling,” said Nguyen, noting how he felt like a respected member of the health care team, with complex terms broken down so he could understand and accurately explain them to his stressed family members. “I wanted to be a nurse and make a difference in the lives of other patients and families.”
Nguyen honed his leadership skills as class president at Everett High School, advocating for reducing student fees for the yearbook, prom, and other senior activities to ensure that everyone who wished to participate could do so. As a member of Allied Health Academy, Nguyen raised awareness of flu clinics and accompanied some Asian-American residents to help raise participation rates.
After graduating in 2016, Nguyen applied to 14 colleges and universities. He said he chose to attend UMass Lowell because of the tutoring and financial resources the university provides for its students, and also because the city’s vibrant Asian-American community feels like a “safe haven.”
“With its diversity, and the way they welcomed me, I felt like I could be my true self,” he said, adding that food reminding him of home is just a short walk away. “Professors are always there for their students as well. If there is a problem or issue, everyone communicates really well with one another.”
Nguyen excelled academically in high school, but his grades faltered for the first two years of college. His struggles are common to many college students: adapting to challenging coursework, learning different study habits, and balancing academics with social and family life — all without being under the watchful eye of his parents and teachers for the first time.
The turning point, quite simply, came from within.
“You grow from your failures,” Nguyen said. “Nursing school taught me resilience and perseverance to keep pushing forward. After all my life experiences — from nearly dying as a little kid, and then spending time with my grandmother in the hospital — I couldn’t see myself as anything but a nurse and advocating for people who needed access to health care.
“That’s when I decided I’d do more for the university,” he added, “and advocate for myself and my peers.”
Nguyen said he immediately found support and direction within his home away from home in the Health & Social Sciences House. The residence hall fosters a “living and learning” environment by offering monthly exam reviews, social activities, career exploration, networking opportunities, and dedicated faculty and staff to guide students as they navigate college and prepare for careers in health education, biomedical and nutritional science, public health, physical therapy and kinesiology, nursing, criminal justice, political science, psychology, sociology, economics, journalism, and history.
“You have to find your resources and the right friends to guide you through this process, and give you a sense of hope that you can do it,” Nguyen said. “Being in the H.E.A.L.L. [Health Education Academic Living & Learning] Community helped push me to academically to do better.”
To give back, Nguyen has been a resident adviser since August 2017. In addition to assisting undergraduates with mental health concerns and roommate conflicts while upholding university policies, he works with professors to integrate College of Health Sciences-specific programming into a dozen events each semester in order to foster a more cohesive community within the residence hall.
To reinforce students’ learning outside the classroom, Nguyen has been a peer tutor since September 2018 for the university’s Centers for Learning, Advising, and Student Success. He is also a student representative for the Class of 2021 nursing program, as well as vice president of Men in Nursing, a UMass Lowell student club and a chapter of the American Association for Men in Nursing.
“I made a vow to myself to help other students succeed, and send them the message that asking for help is a sign of resiliency and strength,” he said.
Over the past year and a half, Nguyen has amassed clinical experience in gerontology, mental health, maternity, pediatrics, acute care, and intensive care. In May 2019, he received job offers from Boston Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital — and when he couldn’t decide between them, he accepted both “because I thought I could do it.”
At Boston Children’s Hospital, Nguyen was a patient experience representative before transitioning in July 2020 into his current role as a clinical assistant in the cardiac intensive care unit. At Boston Medical Center, he is a certified nursing assistant in the intermediate care medical “step-down” unit, which has cared for patients recovering from COVID-19 since March 2020.
While he enjoys working with all patient populations, Nguyen ultimately wants to become a nurse practitioner in an acute care setting, while enhancing diversity, understanding, compassion, and access to care.
“I’m committed to delivering the best care and help patients heal,” he said, “while always treating them as if they’re my own family members.”