The first future dean of students

Huong Nguyen (left) was inspired by her mentor, Teanca Shepherd, to follow a career in higher education after working closely with her in the Office of Student Life at W&J.     

The first future dean of students

Huong Nguyen ’14 knew she wanted to go to college from the time she was young—an ambitious dream for a girl from an immigrant family in which neither parent graduated from high school. Now, the psychology major and Reading, Pa., native begins her senior year at Washington & Jefferson College knowing that she has set a precedent for her two younger sisters and other first-generation college students.

With her mother and father encouraging her academic pursuits, Nguyen set out on countless college visits during her senior year of high school so that she could find the right school to fit her needs. First coming to W&J for Scholarship Weekend in the spring of her senior year, Nguyen fell in love with the campus community because it felt similar to her hometown. “It was a really warm, welcoming environment,” she said. 

Selected for the W&J Leadership and Service Institute before beginning her freshman year, Nguyen developed and solidified relationships on campus before other students had even begun packing for move-in. This opportunity allowed Nguyen to strengthen her leadership skills and led her toward discovering her interest in pursuing student affairs in higher education as a career.

While admitting that one of her greatest struggles as a first-generation college student was filling out applications and financial aid paperwork without a parent’s assistance, Nguyen’s transition from high school senior to college freshman was a smooth one. Once Nguyen completed the Leadership and Service Institute, though, and became more involved with classes, activities and job opportunities, she longed for a mentor to guide her.

“I struggled a lot my first semester freshman year because I didn’t have someone to guide me and tell me that I would be the one deciding what time to put into everything,” Nguyen said. “This was my first time being away from home and being independent. It was a little overwhelming, and I struggled trying to balance social life, academics and also not forgetting that I have family at home.”

Nguyen found the guidance she needed from then-Assistant Dean of Student Life and Director of Diversity Programming
& Multicultural Affairs Teanca Shepherd. Nguyen worked in the Office of Student Life with Shepherd, who felt as if she missed many opportunities during her own time in college by not asking the right questions and wanted to help students take advantage of the opportunities available to them. “More and more I introduced Huong to conferences, people and networks in hopes that they would aid in her career decision-making,” she said.

Nguyen’s relationship with Shepherd ultimately fostered an interest in diversity and higher education, leading her to become a resident assistant and create the Diversity Programming Board, a group dedicated to promoting the inclusion of diverse populations through student programs. These experiences helped Nguyen discover that she wants to one day become a dean of students, and she is working to help her parents understand the significant role of extra-curriculars in shaping her future career. 

“While they do support me, it’s difficult to translate what I want to go into,” Nguyen said. “They think of the traditional aspects of education, the no-frills education where you go to class, you do work and you get good grades.”

To gain experience in the field, Nguyen pursued the Mentorship Initiative for Student Life Internship at Ohio State this past summer, helping to bolster her confidence in her career and communicate the importance of student life on a college campus to her parents. “This experience confirmed my goals and my passion for higher education and student affairs, and quieted the whispers of doubt that I had when initially thinking about going into the field,” she said.

Winning several awards at W&J for her leadership, Nguyen serves as a leader to her younger sisters by guiding them through the college application process and helping them develop realistic expectations about college. She hopes that by graduating from W&J she will show her sisters and other first-generation students the value of hard work and dedication. 

“That diploma has so many different representations for me about how much I faced adversity in order to actually graduate, being the first in my family to earn a college degree, and continuing on to earn a graduate degree,” she said. “I think it means a lot for my parents, too, to see that I made it and that I won’t have to struggle to provide for myself. Graduating from college means independence for me; it means growth.”