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Westside valedictorian went from ESL student to top of her class

2014 April 10
by HISD Communications

In this week’s I am HISD, which features district students, graduates, employees, and other team members, Class of 2014 member Minh Nguyen talks about what creating art means to her, why it’s so important to help others, and how she went from being a fourth-grader speaking no English to the valedictorian of her senior class.

When you moved to the United States in the fourth grade, you spoke no English, yet within a year you were helping other Vietnamese students to learn the language. What allowed you to master English so quickly? And what advice would you give to other students who want to do the same?

Minh Nguyen

I think the primary reason was immersion in the language. Being in an ESL class with only one other Vietnamese student forced me to try my hardest. For the first time in my life, I was constantly struggling, and that resulted in horrible grades. There was simply no other way for me to be better than taking advantage of all my resources.

For students who want to learn English quickly, I would say to try to speak English or find ways to get familiar with it. In the beginning, I stayed afterschool, playing with games on the computer that would help me. I find that learning through songs or books is particularly helpful, as I would try to decipher the meaning of the words. Also, don’t be afraid to talk; most people are more than happy to help.

You went from being an English as a Second Language student as a child to the valedictorian of your senior class, taking Advanced Placement (AP) English Literature and even earning the honor of AP Scholar with Distinction. At what point did you become comfortable enough in English to start taking advanced classes? And how did you know you were ready?

I was lucky, in that I came to the U.S. at a young age, so I was able to absorb things better than if I was an adult. I was learning English in elementary school, so I was only a few years behind the rest of my classmates.

My transition to advanced classes was gradual. I progressed with math first and then began a Gifted and Talented reading and English class in eighth grade. My success in one class enabled me to move on to the next level.

Most of the science or math terms I know are in English, not Vietnamese, so if you ask me for some words in Vietnamese, I would have no idea how to translate them, despite understanding them.

You’ve been recognized at the regional, state, and national levels for your work in the Scholastic Art and Writing awards and the Visual Arts Scholastic Event. A previous interviewer described the arts as being “therapeutic” for you. Can you explain why? What role have the arts played in your life?

Drawing has always been a hobby. I started in daycare. For me, arts have been the thing that were on a different spectrum than math and science. It took some of the analytical and computational aspects and replaced it with freedom. I’m usually a perfectionist, but drawing allows me to take a small break from it, though I still pay attention to detail.

I understand you also serve as a tutor at Kumon and a teacher at the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s summer camps. Why is sharing your knowledge with other young people so important to you?

Though I have come a long way, there will always be some confusion. I was a child who struggled, so I want to be someone who can relieve some confusion, as my old teachers did for me. Whenever my students understand something, I feel proud to be a part of their learning.

I see that you plan to pursue a degree in biochemistry, biology, or another science-related field with an eye toward entering medical school later. Do you feel called to be a doctor? If so, what kind and why?

I have always had an interest in sciences, but right now, I am still unsure about my path. I plan to major in biomedical engineering or bioengineering, and I hope to explore both the technical and medicinal sides of the medical field.

Though I am attached to medicine, I am still unsure about committing to becoming a medical doctor. Being a doctor is an option, but there is more than that, too, such as being part of a technological invention or research that could improve human health. The medical field will address all my interests in math and science, while at the same time allowing me to achieve what I want in a career, helping others and improving myself.

If you know a graduate, student, employee, or other member of Team HISD who should be featured here, please email us at
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