Essay Prize-Winning Psychology Major Examines "Model Minority"

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Four years ago, Mia Nguyen ’21 and Dominican took a chance on each other. The result has been transformative for Mia, who recently won a national prize for her essay examining the impact of the “model minority” myth on Vietnamese American youth.

The essay, which won the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education’s Ethics and Social Justice Essay Prize, is both personal and powerful, inspired by Mia’s lived experience as a Vietnamese American student and informed by her senior thesis research examining intergenerational trauma and cultural dissonance among Vietnamese American youth.

Her research was the perfect way to dig deep into issues that had shaped her own life.

“I saw how mental health stigma significantly impacts minority populations and I wanted to provide a safe space for those like me,” says Mia, a psychology major. “I have always been drawn to serving others, building interpersonal relationships, and learning. My goal in life is to make an impact in the world by making an impact in the lives of individuals.”

Growing up in Elk Grove, just outside Sacramento, Mia was a driven student who struggled with mental health challenges in high school that set her back academically.

“Because the student that I appeared to be on paper didn't show much promise, I had a hard time finding schools that would take a chance on me when applying to college,” she says.
Dominican’s holistic admissions selection process looks at the whole student – seeking students who will thrive in and engage with a challenging and inclusive undergraduate program. Dominican provided Mia with the support, structure, and experiences that allowed her to excel as a student, researcher, and community advocate.

“I couldn't have asked for a better education than the one I got at Dominican. Dominican took a chance on me and I'd like to think it was worth it,” Mia says. “I wouldn't be the person that I am without the support and mentorship I got at Dominican.”

Mia notes that growing up in a primarily Caucasian community, she frequently heard statements from people assuming that she was academically intelligent solely due to her ethnicity. The comments, she notes, never felt right. But, it wasn’t until Mia became invested in community relationships and social justice as a Dominican student that she learned more about this negative feeling. While minoring in Community Action and Social Change (CASC), she learned about the impact of seemingly positive stereotypes.

 “I did not think much about these comments at the time simply because, in my head, it was supposed to be a compliment and it reinforced what my parents wanted and expected from me,” Mia notes. “It couldn’t be a bad thing for people to think or assume that I was good in school or that I was smart.”

Mia had selected psychology in the School of Liberal Arts and Education as her major, inspired by her desire to promote mental health and to help others. She quickly found other interests and talents, adding minors in CASC, Leadership, Spanish, and Cognitive and Experimental Sciences.

Mia started working with the Marin Department of Health & Human Services BRIDGE program as a first-year student to fulfill the hours required for a Service-Learning course. She was drawn to the assignment of providing community and mental health resources to the Vietnamese senior population, eventually working with BRIDGE all four years.

 “Spending time with the seniors gave me pieces of home that I believe made my transition to college a bit easier as well,” she says. “This experience formed a lot of my undergraduate experience. It was how I spent the majority of my time outside of class and it provided me with opportunities to advance my career as well.”

 As part of her CASC minor, Mia has to complete a research project with her community partner. Her initial plan was to draw on her work with the seniors in order to conduct humanizing research that would empower and share the voices of the community.

“I had built meaningful relationships that provided me with insight into my future profession,” she says. “I grew up rejecting my roots and I never would have thought that doing research within my own community would have led me to better understand my roots, why I felt the need to assimilate, and how this impacted my upbringing and relationships with others.”

However, when work moved online this past year due to the pandemic, Mia turned her attention to conducting remote research with a younger demographic more accustomed to Zoom interviews and Internet surveys. She restructured her focus to examine intergenerational trauma – the effects of traumatic events passed down across generations – and intergenerational cultural dissonance among Vietnamese American youth.

“My research was originally inspired by my desire to create space and awareness for the Vietnamese senior community in Marin County, but as I worked to redesign my project my motivation shifted to wanting to provide the Vietnamese youth population with the space to express their unique struggles while also creating more awareness for the Vietnamese community as a whole.” 

After expanding the scope of her project, Mia applied for and was awarded a National Collegiate Honors Council Portz Fellowship, which funded the expanded project. Mia’s goal was to  identify the  unique needs of Vietnamese American youth in order to improve culturally-relevant mental health resources.

“This research is very personal for me as a Vietnamese American. In conducting the interviews and analyzing the findings, both myself and the interviewees found commonalities that brought us closer,” she says. “Many participants stated that without these interviews, they wouldn't have had the space to have ever discussed these issues. Many of them felt alone in their experiences  just as I did —and it was rewarding to know that I was able to provide individuals with the space to have these discussions.”

Mia credits her faculty mentors in the psychology department for developing her skills as a student, researcher, and leader. Her freshman year, Mia started working as a research assistant with Dr. Afshin Gharib. Working with Dr. Gharib helped Mia develop both skills and interest in research, as well as a desire to pursue a Ph.D.

During her sophomore year, Mia worked with Dr. Gharib on a research project looking at the effectiveness of humane education programs for children run at various humane societies around the United States, including Marin Humane, the San Diego Humane Society, and the Oregon Humane Society. She presented her findings at the 2019 NCUR conference and was accepted to present at the (later cancelled) 2020 NCUR conference. She also worked with Dr. Gharib on a second study looking at judgements of personality based on either brief or long exposure, presenting her findings from that project at the 2019 Western Psychological Association (WPA) conference. 

Within the Psychology Department, Mia also took on leadership roles, including serving as vice president and then president of the Psychology Club and representing Dominican in both the WPA and Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology.

Dr. Veronica Fruiht taught Mia to write an APA style paper, collaborated with Mia on her senior thesis, which they hope to publish within the next year, and also helped Mia with the quantitative analysis of her project with the Vietnamese youth population. She enjoyed watching Mia develop as a researcher and a student leader. 

“This year Mia was instrumental in helping the department stay in touch with students, organizing virtual events for student members to keep them connected during this difficult year, including game nights, self-care nights, and just social check-ins on Zoom,” Fruiht says.

Now, with graduation behind her Mia plans to spend the next eight months working as a teacher's assistant in Spain. When she returns to the U.S. she plans to apply to clinical Ph.D. programs.

“Being a global citizen is really important to me and I hope to continue to soothe my adventurous soul by exploring the world a bit more before settling down.”

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