FEATURE | Posted Oct. 2, 2014

Giving back

Early challenges inspire focus on medicine, community outreach

Medical student Alex Nguyen ©
Alex Nguyen

Looking at UC Davis medical student Alex Nguyen’s background, one thing jumps out almost immediately – he has a tremendous respect for education. This goes back to his mother and grandmother, who were both teachers in Vietnam.

It’s a core value that drives the fourth-year medical student to reach out to his community and others in need – efforts that have earned Nguyen a Physicians of Tomorrow Award from the American Medical Association in 2014-15.

Early challenges

Nguyen grew up in Westminster, a predominantly Vietnamese community south of Los Angeles. At 12, he started his own EBay store selling basketball cards. He might have pursued a business career, but events at home shifted him to medicine.

While he was in middle school, his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. For the first time in his life, he experienced the ups and downs of modern health care.

“I would go with my mom to appointments and it really struck me how the care varied,” Nguyen said. “There were doctors who helped us immensely, but there were also a few who were not sensitive to our values and belief in Eastern medical techniques, such as acupuncture. At times, we felt disempowered by the system.”

Nguyen watched his mother gradually weaken from MS. A few years later, his father’s health failed as well.

“When both your parents are afflicted with serious medical conditions, it’s difficult to keep going with school,” he said. “At that point, you either move forward or you don’t. I decided to turn my negative energy into something positive.”

The giving back

Nguyen channeled that energy into supporting his community. While earning his Master of Public Health at the University of Southern California (USC), he founded the Center for Asian American Wellness, a nonprofit that provides financial literacy education, art therapy and mentorship for at-risk Asian and Pacific Islander youth.

But that’s only a small sample of his efforts. At different times, Nguyen founded an organization to empower Asian and Pacific American students, volunteered at a free monthly cancer screening clinic sponsored by the UC Davis School of Medicine; and was part of a team that wrote and performed health-education puppet shows for children in rural India.

Nguyen visiting India
In 2009, Nguyen wrote and performed health-education puppet shows for children in rural India.

These and other activities underscore why he chose UC Davis.

“When I was applying for medical school, I searched for a place that really valued life experience and emphasized the importance of giving back to the community,” Nguyen said. “But it’s more than just giving back. There’s no way one person can understand every culture, but it’s important to have a sense of humility that allows you to embrace the differences.”

Next steps

Humble may be the best way to characterize Nguyen. Although he was among the few who received a prestigious Physicians of Tomorrow Award from the AMA Foundation and had a long list of accomplishments, he almost didn’t apply.

“I was thinking there must be so many qualified people, should I even go for it?” he said.

And while he doesn’t know what his next community-building effort will look like, Nguyen is eager to figure that out. In the meantime, he graduates from medical school next spring and plans to apply to psychiatry residency training program as well as the combined family practice and psychiatry residency training program, which prepares residents for dual board certification.

“I believe a person’s physical and mental health go hand-in-hand,” Nguyen said. “As health-care providers, we should be able to take a step back and see how we can treat the whole person and not just a symptom or illness. Ultimately, I want to be the best healer I can be.”