Leaving Penn: A Reflection

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Thai-Huy Nguyen

On May 16th, 2015, I ended my graduate education by walking alongside my friends and colleagues in the field of education as our degrees were conferred upon us. The day started off with immense excitement and nervousness, in part because it meant that I was leaving my home—the University of Pennsylvania and the Center for MSIs—of five years.

What did these five years consist of? What was it like to be a graduate student at Penn’s Graduate School of Education?

The learning curve was quite steep for me. Coming straight out of the workforce, I was not immediately attuned to the level and amount of reading and writing required of me. My first year took a great deal of persistence and sacrifice in light of the many social distractions that accompany graduate education in beautiful Philadelphia. What became readily helpful was the ongoing support of my advisor and fellow colleagues in the program and across the university. Time spent with them gave way to fruitful conversations that blossomed into enduring friendships and opportunities for collaboration—both of which were necessary to help me begin my path into the academy.

Penn is quite unique in its approach to graduate education in that it actively encourages its schools and departments to work closely with students to develop interdisciplinary plans of study—believing that cross-discipline learning will bring about greater knowledge to tackle today’s most pressing social and economic issues. I embraced this path throughout my five years by exposing myself to research and scholars inside and outside—nursing, history and sociology—of my field. Studying and working in these disciplines and fields strengthened my research and modes of inquiry and gave me a better understanding of why my work in higher education matters.

The most exhilarating aspect of this path was the unnerving nature of its structure: there was none. I had to dig deep, commit to different ways of thinking and theorizing, and avail myself of research topics in which I had little experience. For instance, in the past three years, I worked closely with Margo Brooks Carthon, a professor of nursing science at Penn. Through her grant with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I became her project manager on a national survey of diversity pipeline programs in nursing baccalaureate programs. This opportunity gave way to a wonderful cross-disciplinary collaboration in which we used our collective interests and expertise to address the shortage of nursing students of color and shed light on the practices that encourage their success in nursing education programs. Despite feeling lost at the start, the choice to pursue an individualized path became quite liberating with every new project and course, and I began to make sense of the vast knowledge I had amassed over the years.

In my last year at Penn, I became a research assistant for the Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI), conducting research to improve our nation’s understanding of MSIs. I was fortunate to contribute to CMSI’s achievements through empirical research, policy reports and grant writing, which in turn gave me the preparation I needed to transition to my new role as a faculty member. Although I worked with all sorts of faculty and students across the university, it was important—in light of all the changes in my last year—that I had a home at the CMSI. Of my time and experiences at Penn, I will miss the CMSI the most.

Aside from my formal training, I am leaving with a community of friends that I trust and can depend on—an indication that my graduate education at Penn has been a journey that I will fondly look back upon and smile with deep gratitude and inspiration.

Thai-Huy Nguyen is an assistant professor of student development administration at Seattle University. Prior to his appointment, he served as a research assistant for the Center for MSIs at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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