More Than Fine

More Than Fine

Through UAB, alumna Jenny Nguyen has found a career and a community.
Story by Emma Lang
Photo by Megan Mathew
Photo: Jenny Nguyen

More Than Fine

Through UAB, alumna Jenny Nguyen has found a career and a community.
Story by Emma Lang
Photo by Megan Mathew
Jenny Nguyen’s view of home in Tra Vinh, Vietnam had long since faded through the small airplane window in 2015. On the third leg of her 28-hour journey to graduate school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham—a place she had only read about thus far—the week prior flashed through her mind.
Her visa to study in the U.S. had been approved. She had one week until she needed to be in Birmingham to start classes at UAB – first in the Academic English program and then for an MBA through the Collat School of Business. She had never traveled to America before, but she used English every day at work. She knew UAB would provide endless opportunities for her. After receiving notice of her acceptance, she quit her job on the spot and booked travel arrangements.
“When you come to a new country, you don’t know anything. Even though I could speak English, I had to learn the way of life,” Nguyen said. “I was excited, but also, I knew it was going to be so difficult for me. I prepared myself that the first year would be the most challenging for me, and that if I could overcome it, I would be fine.”
Seven years later, Nguyen is more than fine. Through UAB, she has found a career and a community. In return, she has poured herself into her official job with INTO UAB and her unofficial job mentoring and supporting fellow international students.

A courageous move

A move 9,000 miles from home to a new country where the culture is vastly different than that of Vietnam is no small feat. But no one could accuse Nguyen of lacking courage or drive. She was raised by a strong, single mother, and Nguyen would do anything to make her proud. She always let that fuel her work.
“My mom raised me by herself, and I know that was so difficult,” Nguyen said. “I want to make it up to her. I don’t want her to have to worry about me.”
At a young age, Nguyen helped her mother sell items for her small business. In high school, she attended a gifted school – one that required passing a difficult entrance exam and accepted only 26 students her year. There, she studied and learned English. Upon graduation, she moved to Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, to attend university. While there, she created her own natural-quality cosmetic company and continued to work other part time jobs until she paid her way through college with no debt. When the opportunity to study abroad arose, she knew she had to take it.
Once Nguyen got on UAB’s campus, she found a job as a graduate assistant at the English Language Institute. The ELI program eventually merged with INTO UAB, a joint venture with UAB that helps support and recruit international students. Nguyen helped create marketing campaigns and recruit for a successful INTO UAB launch. She worked diligently—both with INTO and tutoring athletes and international students—to graduate with no debt.
After three years, Nguyen graduated with an MBA in the top 10 percent of her class, with a 4.0 GPA and as a member of the honor society Phi Kappa Phi.

Part of the family

Although her sparkling GPA and persistence might not show it, taking graduate level classes in a language that is not her native tongue proved to be difficult. Nguyen credits UAB’s faculty and staff to her success.
“I love UAB because of the people. People see the potential in you, and they want to invest in you,” Nguyen said. “They mentor me. I can come to anyone on campus, and they always want welcome and try to help me. That makes me want to be here.”
During a particularly trying time for Nguyen, she confided in her advisor, Amy Snow, Director of English Language Programs, about needing a place to live. After years of getting to know and trust Nguyen, Snow and her family offered her a place to stay rent-free for two academic semesters.
Two semesters turned into three years. This relationship mutually benefited both Nguyen and Snow’s family. They both describe these years as a gift.
“That time with Jenny in our home still remains one of the most transformative experiences for our family and one of the things I am so grateful for in my life,” Snow said. “We still wonder how we got such an awesome thing. I don’t know that I can express how impactful it was for us.”

Paying it forward

As a student, Nguyen recognized how UAB impacted her and wanted to give back. She created a Facebook group where other international students can ask questions and share resources. The group now has over 2,000 members, and members even encourage future UAB students to join the group and connect with one another.
Nguyen said that she volunteers as a mentor to help international students settle when they arrive in the U.S. because she remembers what it feels like to be in their shoes. She has helped hundreds of students since she arrived at UAB. When Snow thinks about Nguyen’s compassion for these students, it makes her emotional.
“She collects furniture from garage sales to give to international students in need. She helps students move,” Snow said. “She’s great at connecting. She’s proactive in looking for the students at events who aren’t talking to anyone, and she seeks them out.”
Nguyen’s motivation for this is simply to remember how other people helped her and pay it forward.
“I want to use my own experience to help others be successful because everyone can be successful at UAB,” Nguyen said. “If they try their best and seek for opportunities, they will succeed because they have tremendous support from faculty and staff here.”
After graduation and working part-time at UAB, the road to sponsorship was fraught with ambiguity. Nguyen had grown to love American culture and desired to stay at the place that had given her so much, but she needed sponsorship to continue working here.
The people at UAB again rallied around her. They recognized the way she impacted the program. When a position as a marketing and communications specialist became available at INTO UAB, she came highly recommended. This position provided her H1B sponsorship and after her success in this position over the last three years, INTO UAB just renewed the sponsorship again and promoted her to marketing and recruitment manager.
“I wouldn’t make it to where I am today without the mentors, faculty and staff whom I met here, at UAB,” Nguyen said. “They are my advocates.”
While Nguyen’s story is nothing short of courage, grit and overcoming, many other international students share in this cross-cultural struggle for opportunity. Because of UAB’s programs and people like Nguyen who advocate for those with similar stories, UAB has seen remarkable international students graduate with various degrees and go on to do amazing things.
“My journey is the journey that most international students want to pursue - the American Dream,” Nguyen said. “Now I’m sharing my success story to inspire others to achieve their dreams through higher education.”