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Blugold plans to use future career and her voice to change lives

| Judy Berthiaume

After years of caring for a little brother who has autism, Erika Nguyen always knew she wanted to pursue a career that focuses on helping people.

At UW-Eau Claire, Nguyen quickly found a path that will help her use her talents and interests to make a positive difference in the lives of others who — like her brother — are struggling with their mental health and other related issues.

“I went to college thinking I was going to be a doctor,” says Nguyen, who transferred to UW-Eau Claire two years ago. “I came here, and suddenly everything changed. I knew right away that I wanted to major in psychology. Psychology just feels right.”

Nguyen, who grew up in Rochester, Minnesota, plans to graduate in December with a psychology major and a biology minor.

After she graduates, her plan is to go on to graduate school to become a clinical psychologist who works with marginalized or underrepresented youth in an urban area such as Chicago.

As a clinical psychologist, Nguyen hopes to someday work directly with youth but to also pursue research, another passion she discovered as a Blugold.

“The balance between care and research is really important to me,” says Nguyen of her professional aspirations.

Nguyen is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, making her part of a federal program that aims to level the playing field in graduate education and diversify the research community by class, socioeconomic status and ethnicity.

Each year, the university names up to 13 McNair Scholars, who are paired with faculty mentors for two years. The students collaborate with their mentors on research projects, helping prepare them to be successful researchers in graduate school.

When she came to campus, Nguyen was paired with Dr. April Bleske-Rechek, a professor of psychology who has received national awards for her work collaborating with undergraduate students on research.

Nguyen has worked as a research assistant to Bleske-Rechek on two projects, one centering on microaggressions and one on relationship perceptions.

It’s been interesting to be an active member of a research team examining such important topics, Nguyen says, adding that both projects have helped her think about research and the world in different ways.

Bleske-Recheck has been a fabulous mentor, encouraging her to grow her knowledge and her thinking, she says.

“My research experiences with April have helped me become a better critical thinker in every aspect of my life,” Nguyen says of working alongside her faculty mentor. “I cherish education; I want to always continue to learn. Research pushes us to think about and learn new things. It’s something that I want to do more of in the future.”

The McNair program also supports its scholars in a variety of other ways, including guiding them as they research and apply to graduate schools and programs that align with their interests and aspirations.

McNair staff help their students navigate the graduate school application process and guide them as they craft the essays and other materials needed for their applications.

“As a first-generation student, college already is a difficult process to navigate,” Nguyen says. “Graduate school is yet another thing to navigate. McNair is getting me through the process, so I’m better prepared to get in to and do well in grad school. It has been a great experience.”

Nguyen, who will take her graduate school entrance exams this month, says the support from McNair staff and faculty mentors, as well as her fellow scholars, has given her even more confidence as she prepares to take the next steps toward her future career in psychology.

“Everyone I have met through the program is equally dedicated,” Nguyen says. “All the McNair Scholars want to succeed. We care about each other and support each other. McNair has changed my whole college experience and how I perceive the world.”

At UW-Eau Claire, Nguyen also has found a new confidence — and a louder voice — that is helping her better advocate for herself and others, especially when it comes to issues around equity, diversity and inclusivity.

“Before I came to UW-Eau Claire, I didn’t think much about my cultural identify,” Nguyen says. “Now, I cherish my culture. I’m committed to being an advocate for marginalized communities.”

In her first months as a Blugold, she felt like she living was under a magnifying glass, not sure of her place as a Vietnamese student studying on a predominantly white campus and living in a predominately white community.

Now she is determined to make sure her voice is heard by those on and off campus.

“When you’re part of a small community, it can be very hard to be heard,” Nguyen says. “I’m making sure that I am heard.”

A turning point for her, she says, was an early morning incident at a local coffee shop. She was at a table studying when she heard an older couple nearby making racial comments about her. Eventually, the couple moved to distance themselves from her.

“They actually picked up their table and physically moved it away from me,” Nguyen says. “It was 8 a.m. and I was studying for an exam, so I didn’t say anything at the time, but it stuck with me. After that, I knew I had to raise my voice.”

So, when several students’ racist social media posts became public last fall, Nguyen was quick to condemn the words and photos, contacting university administrators to voice her anger and her demands that those responsible be held accountable.

When, in response to the racist posts and other race-related problems on campus, the chancellor appointed a special task force to address diversity-related issues, Nguyen was invited to be the student representative.

She appreciated the opportunity, Nguyen says, adding that it was empowering to be part of a task force made up of people who are passionate about making a difference on campus.

The task force members dedicated many hours to researching issues and developing recommendations, crafting a strong plan for moving the university forward, she says. The biggest challenge was knowing that it is up to campus administrators to determine if they will act on the recommendations task force members outlined, she says.

“We worked hard without knowing if it would make a difference,” Nguyen says. “We put in the time and effort, but it’s up to others to decide what to do next. That’s hard because it’s now out of our hands.”

While she does believe that UW-Eau Claire is taking steps to address issues relating to equity, diversity and inclusivity, she also believes that much work remains, Nguyen says. For example, current students of color need more and better support, including more timely access to mental health services, she says.

“The university needs to work as hard to support people of color who are here as it does to get them to come here,” Nguyen says.

That said, she appreciates the people she has found on campus who support her.

The Office of Multicultural Affairs has been a tremendous resource, helping her connect with students and staff who encourage and support her in multiple ways, Nguyen says.

Individual faculty and staff members also have been valuable allies, including Bleske-Rechek and Dr. Jonathan Rylander, director of the university’s Center for Writing Excellence, where Nguyen works as a student writing assistant.

Both of them have supported and inspired her, Nguyen says, adding that her hope is that even more faculty and staff will step forward as allies because their words and actions matter.

“We need more allies like them, and especially more vocal advocates,” Nguyen says of her faculty mentors. “We need faculty and staff who are willing to speak out in support of their students, even if it puts them in a difficult position. We need people to use their voices and to know that even the smallest actions can make a big difference.”

This spring, Nguyen — like many others around the world — struggled to manage her emotions after the murder of George Floyd.

“It hit me so hard,” Nguyen says. “I couldn’t stop crying.”

In the days after the murder, Nguyen was among the thousands who joined the protests in Minneapolis.

“These protests are a consequence of years of being unheard and exploited just because of the color of a person's skin,” Nguyen says. “The protests were peaceful. Everyone was looking out for each other, offering food and water and even prayer. Everyone was wearing masks. It was very moving.”

Already, the protests have led to some positive changes in many communities across the country, which has her feeling cautiously hopeful for what is to come, Nguyen says.

With protests continuing in many cities, there are signs that a growing number of people may finally be ready to have the hard but necessary conversations about systematic racism, Nguyen says.

The protesters are doing important work, but others also can help keep the conversation going, Nguyen says.

“People need to show up,” Nguyen says of UW-Eau Claire’s students, faculty, staff and administrators. “Everyone needs to take a step back and look critically at how we can change our day-to-day thinking and actions. We all need to ask questions and challenge our own thinking.”

Nguyen says she hopes people are respectful, but that they will have difficult conversations when talking with others about racism.

“If someone says something offensive, ask them what they mean,” Nguyen says. “Push yourself to have uncomfortable conversations. We all should have the courage to call people out but to still care for one another.”

Creating more understanding across cultures helps everyone — not just people of color — live more meaningful and fulfilling lives, Nguyen says.

To be more culturally competent, it is important to try to better understand all cultures, including our own, Nguyen says. That means asking and answering questions, listening carefully, and keeping an open mind when talking with people who are different than us, she says.

“I don’t want people to tell me they don’t see color when they meet me,” Nguyen says. “I want them to see me as a person, but to also ask me about my culture and my experiences.

“We all should educate ourselves on how our identities impact our living experiences, use our privilege to uplift others, and have uncomfortable conversations with those around us so that we can gain a better perspective.”

Photo caption: Erika Nguyen found a passion for psychology, research and advocacy during her years as a Blugold.