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Computer Science Scholar From Vietnam Receives CSU’s Top Student Award

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Growing up in a working-class family in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Nghia Trong Phan left his homeland for the U.S. with his parents’ dreams on his shoulders: The dream of their son earning a college degree.

Three years ago, Phan took the risk and met the challenge of living in a new country without his family. 

“I decided to pursue something many people from developing nations refer to as the American dream — and it has changed my life and my career path,” Phan said.

Phan enrolled in community college, earned an associate degree from Antelope Valley College and transferred to Cal State Fullerton last year to earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

“Learning about computer science keeps me motivated every day with how marvelous technology is contributing to the advancement of the world,” said Phan, who aspires to become a software engineer at a big tech company.

The first in his family to attend college, Phan is among this year’s recipients of the California State University Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement. The CSU award is given to students who demonstrate superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service and financial need. 

One scholar from each of the 23 campuses is selected for the award, the CSU’s highest recognition of student achievement. Each award provides a donor-funded scholarship. Phan is receiving the Edison International Scholar award, which includes a $7,000 scholarship. 

Phan and the other award winners will be honored as part of the Sept. 13 CSU Board of Trustees meeting.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. While I have the desire and the determination to continue in higher education, the financial burden is always there; it is an invisible pressure that can hold me back,” he said.

“When I was informed that I would receive the award, it was an indescribable, joyful moment. I feel so fortunate since this scholarship will help me to keep going on my education pathway.”

Phan is a top scholar with a 4.0 GPA and participates in student organizations such as the Video Game Design Club, ACM-Association for Computing Machinery and Japanese Anime Club of CSUF. His professors praise his intuitive thinking, analytical skills in math and positive attitude.

“Nghia’s courage to adjust to challenges and willingness to change directions turned out to be a life-changing decision when he chose to attend CSUF,” said President Fram Virjee in his nomination letter to the scholarship selection committee.

“For him, our Titan community became more than an education institution; it became a place where he learned not only from professors, but from alumni and classmates — and found his path in life.”

As an international student, Phan relayed that he has faced challenges, including cultural barriers, such as not being fluent in English, and economic struggles. But he also has found support from the Titan community.

“These difficulties gave me the motivation to embrace the hardships, overcome obstacles and learn and grow from them,” he said.

Pursuing a career in technology wasn’t Phan’s original plan. As a child, he wanted to become a teacher. Someday, he hopes to combine his initial dream of teaching and computer science and return to Vietnam to teach children in rural areas about technological innovations. He wants to be a role model and champion for future generations by showing them what is possible.

“I wish to share and spread my knowledge of technology to disadvantaged children in my homeland and contribute to improving the equity gap in education,” he said.

By earning a college degree and finding his path in life, Phan, who has a younger brother, shared that he also is fulfilling his parents’ wish for their children.

“My parents grew up in times of war and economic depression; education was not something they could attain. They worked hard and struggled to make ends meet,” said Phan, who is on track to graduate in 2024, and later, wants to pursue a master’s degree.

“I always remind myself to live up to my parents’ expectations and desires for their children to get an education because it opens many doors of opportunity,” Phan said.

“I have learned that if I don’t give up, I can always find some achievement at the end of the day — even from failure.”

Debra Cano Ramos