From a Farm in Vietnam to an Engineering Degree and Job at DuPont

Rutgers chemical and biochemical engineering major who learned English at 18 aims high

When HoaiThu Nguyen arrived in the United States six years ago, she knew no English and faced bullying in her new high school. Family members questioned whether her desire to pursue an engineering career was the right choice for a young woman. And the cost of college seemed financially out of reach.

This month, she will graduate with a degree in chemical and biochemical engineering and a goal of becoming a CEO. In the fall, she will begin the job of her dreams – a series of rotational assignments at DuPont, one of the world’s leading chemical companies, in its manufacturing locations nationwide.

But first, she will spend the summer traveling to her home country of Vietnam. She plans to visit family members left behind when she, her parents and five of her seven siblings came to the United States in 2009. Then she will volunteer at an orphanage – a way to “pay forward” the support she received in this country when life seemed bleakest.

Nguyen (pronounced “win” in English) grew up in a coffee farming family in Vietnam with her parents, two brothers and five sisters. She remembers it as a poor but peaceful life. Her parents were devoted to their children, but they fundamentally disagreed on how to raise girls in a society bound by traditional roles.

“In Vietnam, the boy has everything, the girl has nothing,” Nguyen said. “My dad didn’t want us to go to school, but my mom wanted us to be independent.” She began school as a young child, but financial difficulties when she turned 15 almost put an end to her education.

When her parents decided one of their children would have to leave school, Nguyen desperately did not want to be the one since she had been doing well.

“I loved school. School was my happiness,” she said. So Nguyen took a job outside the home to fund the rest of her high school education.

Meanwhile, an aunt who had immigrated to the United States suggested that her parents do the same to give their girls a better chance to achieve independence. When the family arrived in 2009, Nguyen was two months shy of her 18th birthday.

Her timing was good.  Even though she completed high school in Vietnam, she needed to learn English but had no money for private classes. Since she was still under 18, she was eligible to enroll in public high school. She became a junior at Morris Hills High School in her new hometown, Rockaway.

“Those two years were very tough,” she said. “Everyone else had their own group of people since freshman year.  I got bullied really badly in my chemistry class. One of the guys told me I should go work at a nail salon, because ‘that’s where your people belong.’ ”

Nguyen managed to successfully complete her SAT exams a year later and got offers of admission to Rutgers and several other four-year colleges. She chose Rutgers because it offered the most financial aid and a comprehensive engineering program.

Once again, however, the family’s traditional values loomed as a roadblock.

“When I told my parents I wanted to become an engineer, they told me I’m not smart enough,” she said. The reality was that families don’t want their girls to be too well educated, “because when you’re too educated, you can’t have a husband, because guys will be intimidated by you.”

Story by Carl Blesch for Rutgers Today