Feeling stressed about navigating the endless college application forms or simply finding a path to pursue post high school? Meet Mai Lien Nguyen, M-A’s college and career counselor and a great source of support. Although many may remember Nguyen’s face from classroom college visits or assemblies, most aren’t familiar with her on a personal level. Besides an impressive spread of knowledge regarding college education and careers that every student is encouraged to take advantage of, she also has an inspiring story to share regarding the long path that led her to M-A.
This is Nguyen’s second year at our high school, but her sixth year in college counseling; she transitioned to M-A from Mountain View High School. Before that, she spent over ten years teaching history. Nguyen stated, “I’ve spent my entire adulthood in the world of education. In college, I tutored and taught middle school students, and I tutored adults getting their GED [General Education Development]; and since graduating from college, I’ve either taught or advised teenagers.”
Nguyen grew up in Hawaii, after her family fled from the war in Vietnam when she was a baby. (Fun fact: she once lived only a couple of blocks from where President Obama grew up with his grandparents!) She attended a private high school where she received a full scholarship in return for an hour of work everyday. “My duties included cleaning up the cafeteria after lunch, washing test tubes and beakers, setting up chemistry labs, and stuffing envelopes in the office,” she explained. “My days on school campus often started as early as 6:30 a.m. because that was when the computer lab opened, and I did not have my own computer at home.” Besides pursuing activities she found interest in— including basketball, school orchestra, and student government— Nguyen worked several odd jobs, like playing her violin in hotel lobbies and serving frozen yogurt.
After high school, she attended Brown University on the East Coast. When asked why someone would want to leave the nation’s favorite vacation spot, Nguyen replied, “I was adventurous…I really wanted to go as far away as possible from Hawaii and to experience four distinct seasons.”
Since her parents never attended college and were not familiar with the application process, she took on the research and application process by herself with a little help from her own counselor. Brown was on her list of choices simply because it was the only university she ever toured before her senior year, when a friend from the Andover program she attended one summer invited her on the trip. Nguyen said, “I didn’t even know it was part of the ‘Ivy League.’”
“My college list was truly my own, culled through my very inexpert and very haphazard research,” Nguyen reported for those of us who have wondered before what a college counselor’s own college application process might have looked like. “Now that I’m a college counselor, I realize that I made lots of mistakes along the way. For example, I asked more than two teachers to write recommendation letters because I thought that I had to ask a different set of teachers for each college I applied to. I also ignored great advice that my English teacher gave me on a college essay. In the end, however, I was glad that I owned the process. When I went to college and realized that cold weather did not suit me, I had no one else to blame for my choice!”
When asked why anybody would want to spend so much time with stressed out high school seniors who come back with the same obvious questions and quirky admission theories year after year, Nguyen replied that she enjoys it. “There are so many rewarding aspects of my job that I don’t even know where to start! I love working with young people in a school. In this job, I get to learn about who they are, what they value, their dreams and aspirations, what they stand for, [and] their stories. [They] motivate and inspire me every day when I see them learning and taking a greater role in determining their own future.”
Nguyen had several pieces of advice for M-A’s current and future high school seniors planning to pursue a college degree: “Own and embrace the process,” she explained, “No one else will have to live in your shoes when you go to college. This is an exciting time, and in college, you will finally get to call many of the shots when it comes to your education and where you want to direct your life. At times when the application process feels overwhelming or confusing, lean on the support system you have, including myself, your counselor, and teachers.” Second, she recommended finding a balance: “Applications are important, but so is your well-being. Applications are just one of many parts of senior year, and it’s not even the best part!” Her last piece of advise was to remember that “a college does not define you and it does not determine your self-worth. Continuing your education after high school is a completely voluntary act. The fact that you choose to go to college at all is a strong statement about who you are and what matters to you. How you choose to fill your years in college—wherever that may be—is going to shape you more powerfully than any college name on your diploma.”
One final bit of wisdom Nguyen thinks many may need to hear is that she believes “community colleges are vastly underrated. They are truly ‘colleges that change lives’ and places that provide incredible opportunities for people from all walks of life.”
For many M-A students, it is probably worth making a visit to the College and Career Center during the next few months just to get reminded of those last few points – who we are will not be defined by the letters, or any letters at all, on our graduation cap in June. Nguyen said, “Any student is welcome to come by at brunch, lunch, zero period Thursdays, and before or after school to drop in and ask questions.”
She also emphasized that she is happy to help any students with whatever is on their minds about life after M-A, regardless of the path they choose to follow. “Most of my work is with seniors and juniors around the college application process,” she stated. “However, I’m also happy to talk about vocational and other non-college options with anyone.” Nguyen also wants to help younger students navigate their way in the earlier stages of the college process: “the College and Career Center runs a College Club for grade nine and ten students who will be the first generation in their family to go to college.”
The most challenging aspect of her job is finding the time to help all students at M-A. As the only college counselor for nearly 2,400 students, this comes as no surprise.