No matter how people choose to hypothesize the mysteries of life or why things happen the way they do, there is a common denominator for those that receive success: Being in the right place at the right time.
As FAMU’s 2016 commencement ceremony rapidly approaches, there is a particular graduate who knows all too well the feeling of being in that right place.
Nhan Nguyen, 49, will be graduating from the FAMU School of Allied Health’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program on Dec. 9 with the gratification of knowing he has defied the odds.
Nguyen’s life began in the midst of the devastating 21-year-long Vietnam War. He was the first born of eight children in 1967 in a very small Vietnamese town named Binhduong. In his youth, his father ran a bus business that transported people and lumber throughout the country.
“We were a middle class family. Not poor, but not rich,” Nguyen explained. “My parents worked very hard … they worked all day long.”
After the United States pulled troops out of Vietnam, things took a turn for the worse. Like several Vietnamese residents, Nguyen’s father lost control of his business. North Vietnam took over, and restricted the freedom of the Vietnamese people.
According to Nguyen, the conditions of his country were devastating to watch and horrid to reside in.
“The conditions were just like North Korea now … people suffered. People were willing to escape and risk their life at sea to get freedom,” Nguyen said.
It was not uncommon for refugees to board ships in search of a better life, and as result, never see their families again. When Nguyen was 12 years old, his mother made the difficult decision to ultimately sacrifice her son in hope of a better life for him and the rest of their family.
“My mom wasn’t ready to risk her whole family … that’s why she sent me, the oldest of eight,” he said.
Nguyen took on the identity of the son of a Chinese family his mother befriended, and she boarded her eldest son, along with the Chinese family on an overcrowded boat out of Vietnam.
With the outcome of this risk, unbeknownst to her, she sent him on a quest for freedom and prosperity. Nguyen and his family had faith that things would fall into place. To the misfortune of Nguyen, this did not happen immediately.
For 15 days straight, Nguyen was at sea hoping to be accepted into a country and offered freedom.
“At that time, the other countries would turn refugees away … just like they do today,” Nguyen said. “We were rejected by Singapore. We were robbed in Malaysia, and then rejected by Malaysian government.”
On the 15th day, the boat stumbled upon a deserted island that was property of Indonesia. They were accepted, taken off the boat and admitted to a refugee camp.
“My first step back on land … I could barely walk. I was rocking back and forth,” Nguyen explained. “When they brought us to the camp, a small camp of 2,000 to 3,000 refugees, we had to find a place to stay because there’s no housing available for you immediately.”
Nguyen explained that he was able to combine the little money his mother was able to give him with the money his cousin, who was also sent on the boat, to provide shelter.
“My mom gave me money and sewed it to my clothes. Me and my 20-year-old cousin put our money together and bought this hut. I had two or three pairs of shorts, two pairs of long pants, some shirts, and a few US dollars,” Nguyen continued.
Nguyen spent six months at the Indonesian refugee camp. The living conditions were harsh for anyone to live in, especially the then 12-year-old boy.
“There was no mattress, no running water and no running toilet. I remember that we showered in the river, and we would catch rain water and boil it to cook. They [Indonesian fishermen] gave us rice, eggs, sugar, salt and meat and that’s all we had,” he said.
After enduring the camp for six months, Nguyen received the news that would change the course of his life: he had been sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee, and he was now able to leave the camp for the United States.
Nguyen’s knowledge and vision of the United States relied solely in what he saw on television in his youth in Vietnam.
“As kids, we watched TV, and they showed big cities like New York with lights and lots of people. When I landed in Tallahassee, it was freezing cold and dark,” Nguyen said. “The church greeted us, and they had a place for us to stay in a trailer on a farm. When I woke up and looked out the window, I began to cry. I said, ‘this is not America.’ I was shocked. There were no tall buildings and no people. It took a couple weeks to get adjusted to the shock of being here.”
Despite the shock and underlying disappointment that the United States was not like an episode of Friends, Nguyen realized very quickly that he was in good hands. The church enrolled him in the eighth grade at Belleview Middle School, and he began to learn English.
“I had to do a lot of catching up,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen’s second chance at life in America fueled his passion for education. He went on to enroll at Lincoln High School, followed by Tallahassee Community College, and then Florida State University where he received his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the FSU-FAMU School of Engineering in 1986.
He was able gain United States citizenship and land a job with the Florida Department of Environment Protection as an engineer. He would remain there for more than 18 years.
Throughout his schooling, he remained very close with the church members that changed his life, especially Craig Mills, a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee who helped Nguyen bring his parents and seven siblings to the United States in 1992.
When his parents came to America, they quickly determined that the best way to earn success is through entrepreneurship. Nguyen’s mother and siblings went to school to learn to do nails, and soon after, a nail shop was opened. Today, the Nguyen family owns 10 Tallahassee nail salons.
Despite the success of his engineering career and his family’s multiple businesses, Nguyen decided it was time for a drastic change.
“I thought, ‘now it’s time to change my career.’ [There is] not much fulfillment out of sitting behind a computer all day anymore,” he said.
He was not intimidated by this radical change. As his beloved mother says, “Whatever you do to improve yourself, it’s good.”
Driven by his younger sister’s illness in their youth, Nguyen had his sights set on a career in physical therapy. He then came across the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at FAMU.
“When my sister, who had polio, got help from doctors to walk I saw that that was great a field. I went back to school at FAMU, and while working for the state, I began taking prerequisites. In 2013, I applied for the physical therapy program,” he said.
Nguyen then found himself in the right place at the right time again. He went to drop off his application at the School of Allied Health, and this is where he met Dawn Brown-Cross, associate professor and the newest director of FAMU’S Doctor of Physical Therapy program.
“She approached me and said, ‘give me your application, and I’ll submit it for you.’ I asked who she was, and she said, ‘I’m the director,’” Nguyen laughed.
Nguyen was accepted to the program, and his first semester in the classroom was Brown-Cross’ first semester as the director of the program. Whether coincidence or fate, this was the beginning of a lasting relationship between the two.
To this day, Brown-Cross is blown away by the humility displayed by Nguyen.
“He came and presented himself, and didn’t say a single word about his past situation. He came and did what he had to do without complaint,” Brown-Cross said.
All in all, as his second and possibly final college graduation approaches, the former refugee feels very lucky that he was given the opportunity to achieve all that he has.
“I think it was just meant to be, and it was the opportunity of a lifetime that Dr. Brown-Cross gave me,” Nguyen said.
After Nguyen walks across the Al Lawson Jr. Multipurpose Center stage on Dec. 9, he hopes to continue his entrepreneurial endeavors.
“I have a job lined up already. I hope to practice for a few years and possibly open my own business. That’s down the road, though. We have our salon business, but it’d be nice to have my own practice,” he said.
Nguyen left a word of advice for his fellow fall 2016 graduates: “Don’t ever give up, and have faith. Also, I think family is so important. You have to have people behind you. Life is tough, but once you have that foundation, it all falls into place.”