Michelle Nguyen isn’t a Harvard kid.
Her parents were not doctors or lawyers; they were janitors as Nguyen grew up in Eden Prairie, Minn. They spoke nearly exclusively Vietnamese and made as much money as they could.
Eventually, Nguyen landed at the University of North Dakota.
But affording college was not a given for her family: An injury prevented Nguyen’s father from working, which meant lost income and potential that Nguyen would have to move back home.
She ventured around campus, meeting with anyone she thought might help her find the financial assistance to continue her education. It was in the office of Yee Han Chu, UND’s national fellowship and opportunities coordinator, she was able to target some national scholarships.
Nguyen, now a junior at UND’s Nistler College of Business & Public Administration, applied for a scholarship, known as the Dream Award, for students who have overcome adversity in pursuit of their dreams. More than 7,000 applied for the $10,000-a-year, renewable scholarship; Nguyen was one of 22 students to earn it.
It was a formidable moment for Nguyen, who has now spent time across campus sharing her story and encouraging other students to win nationally competitive scholarships.
“When I got my first big scholarship, it changed my life,” Nguyen said. “It changed my family and my perspective on education. I really wanted to help other students with that same opportunity.”
Chu started in her position early last summer. She has worked with more than 40 students to help form their applications for the diverse and competitive scholarships. But she can’t do it alone.
“This work really is a collective effort,” Chu said.
The application process for such scholarships as the Boren, Fulbright or Goldwater, is deep and complicated, Chu noted, adding it requires people with expertise in a number of areas who can those identify opportunities for students.
Chu speaks with faculty and staff to let them know to keep an ear out for students who might be passionate about a certain topic because that could lead to a certain type of scholarship.
“But it’s not me that they reach out to first,” Chu said to a group of staff and faculty at a recent Provost Forum. “It’s people they meet in the hallways, in the classrooms. It’s folks out on campus who will have that first contact with students.”
It’s people like Thyra Knapp, chair of the language department at UND, who advocates for the Fulbright and critical languages scholarships, or Ryan Zerr, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who champions students to apply for scholarships such as the Goldwater.
“I think the main thing is to make students aware of these opportunities,” said Mark Jendrysik, UND professor in the political science and public administration department. “And the second important thing is to convince them that they are worthy. I think people here are often taught to be aggressively humble. ... I think part of it is to convince students that ‘you are good enough for this, this is something for you. And that you are competitive with people all over the country.’ ”
Success builds on itself, Jendrysik said. If students hear more about these opportunities, they may be more likely to try it for themselves.
“I think that’s a really powerful thing,” he said. “As more students do this sort of thing, more students see that it’s possible.”
It also is about taking risks, Chu said.
“You are pursuing this in the company of other people who will support you on your rise and your fall,” she said. “That type of risk taking is incredibly important, not just in the process of applying, but I think in their professional pursuits. It's important in terms of just personal growth.”
Even if a student fails to win a scholarship, it doesn’t mean that a student isn’t worthy of another scholarship. Sometimes it’s the panel, sometimes a student might not check every box the scholarship panel is looking for or sometimes it’s just not their year. But Nguyen doesn’t want students to give up.
“It's a mindset that I hope that we can instill in our students and have for future generations of students that attend the University of North Dakota, something that makes them different, especially when they're in the workforce,” she said.
Kincaid Rowbotham, a student studying molecular and integrative biology, helps Chu spread the word about nationally competitive scholarships. Growing up, Rowbotham wasn’t the perfect student. He didn’t have a 4.0 GPA or a perfect ACT score.
“It helped me learn that I’m actually capable of doing things that I didn’t think I was capable of,” he said of the scholarship application process. “When you go through these processes, it really helps you build up your confidence.”
Rowbotham said it’s important to motivate students and show them that the risks are low.
“Either you get it, or you don’t,” he said. “If you don’t, there’s not going to be a sniper hunting you down. It’s going to be that you failed. Oh, well, there’s more. ... It’s not going to be like the world’s going to collapse when you fail."
The process of applying for these scholarships can help students better understand themselves and what they want to do in life. For Rowbotham, he found the confidence to start UND’s Biology Club and join a fraternity.
“Never talk yourself out of a good opportunity,” Nguyen said.