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The Aztec Experience

The Aztec Experience

Kelly Nguyen: Learning to Lead, Learning to Grow

photo of Kelly Nguyen

Leadership is a skill that is becoming more natural for Kelly Nguyen, a first-generation sophomore from Oakland, majoring in Health Science (Public Health) at SDSU.

Now midway through her Aztec Experience, Kelly has quickly grown into her own, leading members of Gates to Success — a student organization that gives first generation students the tools to succeed through mentorship, leadership and professional development — as president for the past year.

“For a very long time, I was afraid of stepping into leadership roles,” Kelly said, “but just coming to State, I became a Peer Leadership Consultant while in pursuit of my own Leadership Certificate. I was teaching leadership workshops for other people who had the same goals as me.”

As someone who struggled with self-doubt in her first year, Kelly managed to excel academically, transforming into the student leader those around her knew she could be. Today she is enrolled in the San Diego State Weber Honors College for high-achieving students and participates in community service regularly as part of Rotaract, a student-led service group.

Setting Up for Success

photo of Kelly in Washington DCKelly’s path to leadership started early in her freshman year: her mentor, Michelle Lopez, assistant dean in the Division of Undergraduate Studies and director of scholar development programs, had encouraged her to apply for a national scholarship through the National Institutes of Health.

The award, which covers up to $20,000 in tuition and living related expenses per year, is granted to only a select number of students each year.

Despite her initial hesitation, Kelly applied.

“It’s a very normal thing for students to doubt themselves when it comes to national opportunities,” Lopez said. “They think, ‘Why bother?’ but I told Kelly ‘Let the committee decide.’ If you put the time into it, it will pay off in the end.”

Success followed. Kelly was selected from more than 200 applicants.

“One thing that has been interesting about Kelly is that she is recognizing and realizing her potential,” Lopez said. “For every scholarship or internship she is getting, it’s given her more confidence to go after the next big thing.”

Kelly’s research scholarship is eligible for renewal up to four years and includes a 10-week summer research experience in Bethesda, Maryland. She will be mentored by a NIH researcher and postdoctoral fellow, and after graduation, NIH will employ her for one year.

“I totally didn’t expect to get it at all,” Kelly remembers, ”but if you put in the work and have mentors who really care for you and care to effectively share your story, you have to try. Don’t let your doubt hold you back.”

Learning to Lead a Community

Kelly’s dreams of pursuing a career in health started at State after being placed in an internship last summer at the Children’s Hospital Oakland’s Family Information & Navigation Desk. The program is aimed at underrepresented students and explores the external social factors influencing community health.

The internship left a lasting impression on Kelly, when one presenter challenged her to question the conditions of her own neighborhood back home. “He said, ‘Have you ever noticed how there are almost liquor stores on every corner in West Oakland?’ and I live in West Oakland,” Kelly said.

“Then he said, ‘Have you ever noticed how in West Oakland there are freeways running through the neighborhood?’ I didn’t realize any of that,” she added.

It was a world she hadn’t fully seen with open eyes — how her surroundings had contributed to the alcohol and asthma problems in the community.

Something had to change, inspiring Kelly’s interest and goal of working in the health disparities or community health field. Down the road, she hopes to provide others in similar situations with the same enlightening experience and plans to earn a master’s degree in public health after she completes her year with the NIH.

The Aztec Research Experience

Before heading to NIH headquarters this summer, Kelly will work as one of six research assistants this spring with Giang Pham, assistant professor in the SDSU School of Speech, Language, & Hearing Sciences, on a research collaboration with San Diego Unified School District.

Their project will look at bilingualism in children, kindergarten through second grade, and the factors that influencing home language development (Vietnamese) when given English instruction in school. In San Diego Unified School District, Vietnamese is the second most common spoken language for students.

Photo of Kelly Nguyen with classmate“Many immigrant families have the misconception that in order for their children to succeed in school they need to start speaking English early in the home,” Pham said.

Each week, Kelly will collect data from both students and parents to determine what helps or hinders language proficiency in English and Vietnamese.

“For Kelly, what’s exciting about this project is [the opportunity] to integrate personal and professional research,” Pham said. “By going into schools and working with Vietnamese students, she will be interacting with the larger Vietnamese-American community here. Being able to gain experience by interacting with your own ethnic community, but from the lens of research, is a valuable experience.”

With mentors encouraging her each step of the way, Kelly has become a source of inspiration for other students through Gates to Success. It’s a transformation she is making on her own—with unsurprising finesse.

“My Aztec Experience has pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Kelly said. “It has pushed me to talk to people who I usually would not approach, and as a result, allowed me to build a stronger network. Mentorship definitely got me to where I am today.”

Did you know...


SDSU students dedicated 47,500 hours to community service during the 2014-15 academic year, making a profound impact locally and globally.



More than 100 Aztecs act as Resident Advisors and Community Assistants in Student Housing, who are role models on campus and helping lead students along their Aztec Experience.



Approximately 700 high-achieving Aztecs are enrolled in the SDSU Weber Honors College, pushing their talents to the limit and striving for academic excellence. 


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Our students are sharing their cultural experiences and knowledge with communities abroad, elevating SDSU into the Top 5 Hispanic-serving institutions for volunteers.