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Nguyen, graduate Brittain Award recipient, finds a calling in community
Rollins School of Public Health graduate My Nguyen’s

From volunteering as an interpreter to mentoring first-generation students and speaking out on others’ behalf, this year’s graduate Brittain Award recipient My Nguyen drives positive change in everything she does.

— Emory Photo Video

When looking through the list of My Nguyen’s activities and accomplishments during her time as a master of public health (MPH) student at Rollins School of Public Health, a common theme quickly emerges. This year’s Marion Luther Brittain Award graduate student winner, who identifies as a first-generation, low-income student, has poured her energy into numerous efforts framed around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) both at Emory and beyond.

“For a lot of students doing work in this space — and I include myself in this group — it’s not a side hobby or resume builder,” she says. “It’s very much our life. We do it because we’re really passionate about it.”

Though it wasn’t until her second year at Stanford that she became acquainted with the term “public health,” Nguyen was well versed in the health disparities ubiquitous to the American health care system through day-to-day life and personal encounters navigating applications for Medicaid and SNAP with her family.

Taking community health seriously

During college, she had an emotionally impactful experience volunteering as an interpreter at a free clinic where she heard the stories of several elderly Vietnamese Americans — stories reminiscent of those told by her Vietnamese war refugee maternal grandparents. Though Nguyen was initially pre-med, this volunteer position helped inform her desire to work in the prevention space versus the treatment side, and she began adding coursework that spoke to her interests in community health.

The pandemic postponed Nguyen’s undergraduate commencement ceremony at Stanford — she will actually be receiving her MPH degree before her bachelor’s.

A self-described extroverted introvert, Nguyen wanted to ensure she developed strong relationships with her classmates, particularly given the hybrid start to her time at Emory. She quickly applied for a graduate academic-adviser-in-residence position through the Emory Office of Undergraduate Education and Residence Life, which she maintained her entire time at Rollins.

“Coming from a first-gen background, I wanted to serve as a mentor for others in a similar situation,” she says of the role that enables her to meet one-on-one with undergraduate students. Nguyen also found an avenue for community building through Students for Social Justice (S4SJ) and roles such as the student ambassador for the Identity Spaces Project and graduate programming assistant for the Asian Student Center.

Her interests have branched into the Atlanta community through her role as a program evaluation intern for the Refugee Family Assistance program in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where she conducted focus groups and interviews with caseworkers helping refugee families with disabilities during the pandemic.

Additional positions included an Emory Ethics and Servant Leadership Public Health internship placement at the CDC; teaching assistant positions for two Rollins courses; and work as an evaluation team member for the Task Force for Global Health’s Council for Opportunity, Diversity and Equity.

Facing conflict head on

Nguyen thrives in difficult situations and doesn’t shy away from conflict. Some of this she attributes to her mom, whom she views as the exemplar of strength, tenacity and independence. “I think I take on challenges because I grew up with a single mom in a low-income household,” she says. “We didn’t have the privilege of not tackling things head on.”

For instance, following March 2021’s Atlanta spa shootings, Nguyen, frustrated with the lack of Emory-organized spaces for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) students to grieve, worked with S4SJ peers to develop a virtual space for students — particularly those identifying as APIDA women — to congregate, converse and mourn.

That experience provided a sense of solidarity and belonging that emboldened Nguyen to connect with faculty in the Department of Behavioral, Social and Health Education Sciences (BSHES) and further share her frustrations and suggestions of how the school and university could improve on their DEI work. This led to an invitation for Nguyen to serve on the  as a graduate research assistant and on Rollins’ schoolwide Community and Diversity Committee.

Through both groups, Nguyen has brought her passion, clear-headed vision and lived experiences to drive lasting positive change in her department and the school.

In the larger public health space, Nguyen framed her thesis around COVID-19-related discrimination, food insecurity, mental health and transportation difficulties for Vietnamese Americans. With encouragement from departmental mentors , Nguyen has presented her thesis findings at multiple premiere conferences, including the Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association and the Annual Conference for the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science, as well as conferences and symposiums on Emory’s campus. Next, she hopes to submit her manuscript  to a publication such as Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.  

Though Nguyen was speechless to learn she was a Brittain Award winner, the seven signees on her nomination letter couldn’t say enough good things about Nguyen, both as a student and as a human. As Liz Walker, research associate professor and BSHES director of graduate studies, wrote, “She is humble, thoughtful, generous and curious. My has made an incredible mark at RSPH and Emory — she is truly deserving of this award.”

“Getting confirmation that the work I’m doing is making a difference means so much,” says Nguyen, who is the second student to win this award from Rollins (Lisa Chung was the graduate student winner in 2021). “I hope that any other first-gen, low-income students out there reading this get the message that they belong at a university like this and they can do it. You belong here.”

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