Study Abroad is a series that explores the experiences, challenges, and lessons of Vietnamese international students.
Twenty-three-year-old Tien Pham realized her calling to become a nurse after she visited an orphanage with disabled children. “At that moment, I wondered how I had been blessed to have everything when they had nothing,” said Tien. “While I was taking care of them, we connected and shared smiles. Since then, I have found a sense of purpose and happiness in helping and caring for others.”
Tien spent her childhood in Dong Nai’s Bien Hoa City. After attending a private boarding school in Ho Chi Minh City, she got a full scholarship to study in the US. She is a senior nursing student based in Seattle, Washington, graduating in the summer of 2023.
“I would say this city has been the best experience I have had so far in both academia and lifestyle,” said Tien when asked how she would describe Seattle. “It offers many good opportunities for schools, jobs, and personal growth.”
In her first year in the US, she took an introduction to Anatomy and Physiology class that confirmed her interest in the medical field. She then moved forward with the process and applied for Edmonds College to fulfill her prerequisites. “In my second year at Edmonds College, I started volunteering at local hospitals to prepare myself for my nursing career and also learn about the healthcare system,” she said.
“After volunteering at Virginia Mason for over a year, I was able to have many patient interactions and get familiar with hospital settings.”
Because of that experience, Tien took a year off from school and worked full-time instead. “During that year, I learned much more about the healthcare system and life. I finally applied to transfer to the university and got accepted to Seattle University for its nursing program. The school granted me a yearly scholarship that helped a lot with the tuition and other expenses,” she said.
When asked what motivated her to study abroad, Tien said she was “ready for change,” adding, “In high school, I felt completely lost with my sense of purpose about what I wanted to do or achieve when I got into college. Even though I had good grades in most of the subjects and studied hard, I felt like there was nothing that I was most interested in or good at. Then, I was ready for a change and challenge. I wanted to experience living an independent life in a different country.”
Tien adores her parents so much and refers to them as her “the only thing that keeps me going.” To her, the opportunity to go abroad and earn her degree changed her perspective on life. She revealed she doesn’t want much; she just wants to be a better version of herself while helping others.
From her daily routine and how she balances school and hospital duties, here’s how Tien gets things done.
On her preparation before leaving Vietnam:
I was excited but also nervous at the same time because that was the first time I was going overseas by myself. It freaked me out since I didn’t have my parents with me. I watched many YouTube videos about preparing to study abroad and did a lot of research about where I would live.
For items I brought with me, I tried to prepare as many things as possible, like clothes, personal items, and some snacks but especially gifts for new family and friends. My host family sent me a list of school supplies to prepare if I wanted to, which was truly helpful. I got as many clothes as I could just to be prepared. My host family was my source of information for getting ready for the trip.
Emotionally, I felt sad about thinking that I would not see my family for a year. It was a huge adjustment for me at that time. However, I tried to stay positive by thinking that this has always been my dream and goal. This would be the most incredible opportunity to find myself and my purpose in life. And I would always have my family’s support no matter where life took me.
On her daily routine:
I usually wake up around 6-7 am, depending on what activities I have during the day. My classes typically start at 7:45 am and end around noon. After class, I usually go to the gym and, ideally, will work out for an hour. I will eat a quick lunch after exercising and attend my public health internship at a nearby elementary school.
After that, I usually go home or grocery shop if I need to. I often eat dinner, study a little more, or read a book before bedtime. On the days when I don’t have classes, I work four hours (16 hours/week) on campus as an Administrative Assistant, then go to the gym, and the evening routine is pretty much the same.
There is always one day of the week that I have a clinical rotation when I go to a hospital for a ten or 12-hour shift. This quarter I have a 10-hour (6 am-4 pm) shift at a mental health hospital on Saturdays.
On what keeps her going:
In my nursing career, the biggest and most rewarding things that have inspired me are patients’ appreciation, trust, and better health. There will always be good and bad days but what matters the most is whether I let those bad days bring me down or allow the good days to bring more motivation. When treating a patient, I will keep reminding myself about what I can do in my power to make sure they will have a better life after leaving the hospital.
In life, my parents are the only thing that keeps me going. They have been my motivation, inspiration, and my biggest supporters. No matter what I go through, they always show that I am not alone and can always come home. I want to become the best version of myself for them, me, and the people around me.
On staying connected to her family and friends in Vietnam:
I call my parents once a week now because my schedule is extremely packed with school and work. I like to update them about my life here, at school and work. My parents are my most supportive system, regardless if it’s a good or bad day. They encourage me to go on and continue my journey abroad and keep the door open whenever I need to fly home.
Besides my parents, I regularly talk to my two best friends, who I have known since middle school. They’re family, and I am forever grateful for them.
On building relationships abroad:
I have a small group of friends, around six people – one Vietnamese, one Malaysian, one Korean American, and three Americans. They have been my go-to people here in Seattle for the past couple of years. They helped me grow as an individual and shared many good memories with me. I have a few friends at school with who I spend time studying. We also hang out sometimes.
On having an English name:
I did not have an English name as an exchange student in Alabama. However, when I moved to Seattle for Edmonds College, I thought it would be cool to have an English name and tried to pick one. I used Lindsay for my time at Edmonds and OPT year. However, I slowly realized there was no need to change the name my parents gave me. I should have appreciated where I came from and my original life because that shaped who I am today. So, I switched back to Tien when I attended Seattle University.
I honestly don’t think it matters so much to have an English name because it does not change anything. Who you are is more important than an English name.
On how she balances school and fun:
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having an active life outside school. Yet school is always a priority, your growth as a human is considered important. I like to hang out with my friends and do activities with them. In spring or summer, we go hiking, camping, paddle boarding, or beach volleyball together. We also make road trips sometimes during the year. We go to music festivals.
I don’t have a specific passion, but I always like to try to learn new things. The life and the people I have outside of school are most often the people I grow with because they bring other perspectives about life than just nursing experience. I like spending time with them to learn about other things in life. We can’t study all the time because, at the end of the day, your experience as a person helps you do better at your job than in school lectures. Your skills and insights also matter. They enhance your professionalism.
On what she learned from studying abroad:
I will forever be grateful for my experience here in the US as I learned so many lessons, and they shaped me into the person I am today. I would say one lesson that I wanted to tell many other people who are considering studying abroad would be, “Take the opportunity and don’t let fear dictate your ability to reach your goals in life.”
It can be terrifying living on your own in a new environment sometimes, and it is understandable, but that might be the only chance you have to find yourself and your passion.
Do not overthink what might happen; just do it because whatever is supposed to happen will happen eventually, and there is nothing you can do about it.
One more lesson will be that failing and crying in your journey is okay. I used to cry a lot when I first came to the US because I felt so behind compared to other people, and I felt like my English was not good enough and I won’t be successful because I had a bad grade in one exam. I thought I could not get into nursing school because it sounded tough and competitive. And you know what? It will be okay as long as I want something bad enough.
Your effort matters more than the result, and whatever hardship might be on your way for now. It will go away! Always pick yourself up, ask for help, and take it one day at a time. Everything will be just fine!
On how her outlook on life has evolved:
Everything is achievable, and I know we are stronger than anything else in this world. We can survive, adapt, and sometimes get tired and take a break, but we will get back up and keep going.
Always remember to appreciate every single individual in your life. They play a big role in creating you as a person. Some people bring lessons. Some people bring memories or love. Don’t forget to appreciate them and keep working on whatever is meaningful. And when you reach your most successful stage, remember to help others so they can get there.
Life's a circle; if we do good and spread goodness around, it will stay. Your best version of yourself will inspire others and bring this world to a better place.
On dealing with challenges:
When I first came to the US, the first two months were the hardest when dealing with being in a new place, not knowing anyone, and missing home. I struggled with understanding my friends and their culture. And I dealt with this by learning about their culture. I would ask my friends what music they like, what movies they usually watch, what they usually do during the weekend, and if I could join them.
I also called my parents a lot for emotional support. They were a reminder for me to keep going forward. The more I understood the culture, the language, and the lifestyle here, the more I enjoyed them, and it got a lot easier as it went.
On her hopes for the future:
After graduating next year, I plan to get sponsored by a hospital here in the States to continue my nursing career. I want to work as a nurse for at least 3-5 years in different settings and specialties. I plan to return to school for a Doctoral Nursing Practitioner (DNP) in Neonatology. I want to earn my DNP by 30 and have my life settled with my partner at 27.
These are just my hope for the future, but I focus more on the present. I want to do as best as I can now and go with the flow for the future.
This or That
Movies or books?
Fresh juice or smoothie?
Shopping in-store or online?
Instagram or Twitter?
Give a speech or write a paper?