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Life and Work with Juliane Nguyen

Today we’d like to introduce you to Juliane Nguyen.

Juliane, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I was born and raised in “Little Saigon,” Orange County. I currently live in Los Angeles for the past 5 years.

As the oldest daughter of refugees, I had to learn how to be proactive and figure everything out for myself. My parents barely had a high school education and were constantly working. They always stressed that education is a priority. As a result, school has always been important to me. My family always stressed the importance of having an education because they never really had the opportunity to go to school. My parents do not have a high school diploma. They worked various jobs to provide for our family. They saw and explained to me that education is something people will never be able to take away from you and it’s also an opportunity to excel in life.

Growing up, I always won the outstanding citizenship awards. Then at 13, my parents started arguing more frequently, which pushed me into my rebellion stage. I cut off all my hair, started wearing (more) makeup, and started wearing more “goth”/”punk” clothing. Despite my appearances, I was still on honor rolls and I was also recognized for outstanding citizenship during my junior high graduation.

In high school, I was enrolled in honors and advanced placement (AP) courses. I was fairly active at school, played sports, and made it on the honor rolls. At 16, I found out my parents were separating… I was angry, shocked, confused, scared…

A couple of weeks later, I received news that my dad is in the hospital. Apparently, he blacked out at work and was transported to the hospital, where he remained for several months. We’re still not really sure what happened to my dad, but I’m sure it was due to chronic stress from overworking and family issues. My dad had several surgeries performed, which left him permanently physically disabled. This also prevented him from working for the rest of his life because his whole left side became paralyzed. This also meant he could no longer care for us (financially) and I couldn’t move out with my dad. I was forced to live with my mom. I was angry at my mom because I blamed her for their separation. As a result, my mom and I fought a lot. This was the first time I felt severely depressed, but I knew I had to stay strong for my dad and younger siblings.

Since my mom and I fought a lot and my dad was in the hospital, I basically had to grow up – I got a job, my license, and a car. I wanted to emancipate myself as soon as I could. However, my depression got the best of me… my grades went from a 3.5+ GPA to a 1.5 GPA. I started failing classes and then, I was also pulled out of sports due to my low GPA.

Meanwhile, I also visited the hospital daily to see my dad. Seeing my dad in so much pain (physically and emotionally), allowed me to have an epiphany. I wanted to be a nurse to help care for my dad in the near future. I knew in order to be a nurse, I need to do well in school.

Slowly but surely, I was able to make my way back to the honor roll. I was able to engage in school activities and play sports again. I actually won a scholarship and a perfect attendance award upon graduation. Anyway, around graduation time, my honors and AP classmates were writing personal statements and getting ready to apply to universities I’ve never heard of. All I knew was I wanted to go to nursing school, but I wasn’t sure how to go about that process. I was never encouraged by anyone to apply to a 4-year school, so I didn’t even bother trying. Plus, I didn’t even know how I would be able to pay for school and I wasn’t ready to leave my dad and siblings.

I attended 3 different community colleges. I finished all of my general education courses, received my Associates of Arts (AA) degree and applied to several nursing programs. Knowing that nursing programs are impacted, I wasn’t surprised that I kept getting waitlisted. Then, I met with my academic advisor to figure out what to do, he suggested that I transfer to a 4-year college and get a Bachelor’s in a health-related field because it may increase my chances of getting into nursing school.

I applied to two state schools. I was unsure of whether or not I’ll be accepted because I failed the same class 3 times… I received my first rejection letter, so I was relying on the second school. Fortunately, I was accepted to Cal State University, Fullerton, I took my academic advisor’s suggestion and double majored in health science and pre-nursing. I applied to CSUF’s nursing program… again, I was waitlisted… I was thinking “what am I going to do? I’m about to graduate soon!” Then, I took an Asian American Studies (ASAM) course as an elective. No exaggeration, this ASAM class changed my life. This class opened my eyes that I was not alone. I started seeing my dad/family’s problem from a new perspective. I became interested in preventative health education, like what if someone informed my parents about couple’s therapy or taught my parents how to cope with stress. I was no longer interested in pursuing a nursing career. Unfortunately, doing this disappointed my dad because he didn’t understand the concept or importance of preventative health education.

However, I fell in love with school again because it was something I could apply directly to my personal life. I started engaging in health discussions with my family. I ended graduating with two bachelors’ degree in Health Science and Asian American Studies. I also freaked out around graduation time because I knew I wanted to be a health educator and work with disadvantaged families, such as mine, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. My professor suggested I apply for graduate school in Public Health. I didn’t even know what graduate school was (neither did my family). Again, I thought I wasn’t good enough but applied anyway. My professor also sent me a bunch of fellowships and scholarships. I got rejected as well as awarded some scholarships. Anyway, I told my professor I am interested in working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) one day to become a health educator. She emailed me a public health fellowship for the CDC, so I applied. I didn’t think I would get it, but they actually selected me! I was thinking this must be a mistake, but they actually sent me a confirmation letter with my name in it. My professor was so excited for me.

Anyway, after graduating from CSUF, I only applied for one Masters Public Health graduate program (MPH) because I didn’t know where else to apply nor did I do much research on other MPH programs. I received another rejection letter… but I was too excited to intern at the CDC in Atlanta.

During my fellowship, I won an award for my research. Then when I came back home, I wasn’t sure what to do as I was unemployed. I had all the time in the world, so I did my research on different MPH programs and started working on my personal statement. I also landed a temporary full-time job at a youth center, where I met a couple of social workers. Honestly, I had no idea what social work was, so I asked them about social work. I thought, “Oh that sounds interesting” and a lot of the jobs I was applying for required a Master’s in Social Work (MSW). I started looking into schools that offer both MPH/MSW programs and applied.

I only applied to several graduate schools. I received a few rejection letters… I started to felt discouraged and that maybe graduate school wasn’t for me. UCLA was my first priority. Then, I received a letter that I didn’t get into their Public Health program. I felt even more discouraged. Several days later, I received a message from UCLA that I was waitlisted for their MSW program. I was thinking, “waitlisted?!” With my past experience of being waitlisted, it meant rejection, so I called and they said I was on the top of the waitlist. Eventually, I was accepted to UCLA. Again, honestly, I didn’t have much knowledge or experience in social work prior to this program. I was scared and anxious, but you know what? I absolutely fell in love with the program- I learned more about myself that I could possibly be thought. This program allowed me to be more in tune with myself and has helped me deal with a lot of my personal issues.

I wasn’t going to give up on pursuing my MPH so easily, so I reapplied. You know what!? I finally got in!

I was prepared to be a dual degree student. I thought I could handle it and had my life planned out. Then, my dad has a stroke and went missing. This is probably the second time where I’ve ever been this depressed since I was 16.

I almost dropped out of graduate school. I almost forgot why I was here and all the hard work it took to get me here.

Then, when I was confronted by the reality that sometimes life doesn’t always go according to plan, but it doesn’t mean I should give up. I know I’m not a quitter and I know I deserve to be here. I remembered why I’m going into these fields. I’m doing it to help families like mine and be a role model for others that may be experiencing what I went through. I want to give them hope.

I really hate when people discredit my hard work by saying “Oh, Juliane is smart and perfect, so it’s no surprise that she’s where she is today” or something along those lines. You know what?? I struggled a lot and I thank my stupidity and stubbornness for allowing me to take risks as well as not giving up when times are rough.

Today, I still have a pinch or slap myself because this all feels so surreal. I never thought I would ever be here. I want to thank all those schools that rejected me because I wouldn’t be where I am today. Some of my professors are actually encouraging me to think about a doctorate degree. We’ll see about that… I’m still busy just trying to stay sane and not get thrown off track again.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
It definitely has not been an easy journey for me. I’ve experienced way too many hardships that I hope no one ever goes through. Growing up and surviving poverty has taught me how to be resourceful. I felt like I didn’t really have a childhood as I was busy taking care of everyone else’s needs aside from my own. I had to not only think about myself but how I was going to take care and feed my younger siblings off of minimum wage. I had to learn how to drive, get a job, and learn how to budget at the age of 16 so I can care for my family. Fortunately, I was very vocal about my struggles and had mentors who listened to me and guided me in the right direction. To this day, I am extremely thankful for all of my mentors for believing in me.

I spent my entire life planning how my life should have been… and I am glad it didn’t go according to plan. Many of the paths that I have taken have been unconventional and I had no idea where it was going to take me, but I stuck with it. I’ve faced a lot of discouragement and backlash from my parents, family, friends, etc. I had people who didn’t believe in me because they said I was too ambitious. I’ve made tons of mistakes along the way, but I didn’t dwell on them. Instead, I reflected on how I could improve myself and be resilient.

I often share my stories with my students, especially young females who are going through hard times, is to not be afraid to share your stories and vocalize your needs. There are people who are willing to help you if you give them the chance. I also encourage them to take advantage of various opportunities, be open-minded, and to be pioneers of their own lives.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with your business – tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
I absolutely love my job! I am a Program Coordinator at UCLA Recreation and I have many roles, including gym management, health education, personal fitness training, and overseeing various wellness programs. My family still has no idea what I do and I recently told them that I am doing everything I said I wanted to do when I grow up. I am most proud of being part of a culture that not only promotes fitness but overall wellbeing. I love my job because I honestly get to work with everyone, from students, employees, to retirees. I enjoy educating everyone about wellbeing.

It’s also been a humbling experience to be a woman of color in a leadership position, let alone in fitness. A lot of the times when people ask to speak to the supervisor, they rarely expect it to be me and are extremely dismissive of my leadership qualities based on my appearance… until they see credentials or me in action.
I am glad to be part of UCLA Recreation because we’re always trying to find innovative ways to promote health and well-being, including mental health and chronic disease. What sets me apart from others is that I come from a health research and community advocacy background. I had no intention of going into fitness, but I am glad I am here. I am also able to apply in everything that I’ve learned personally and academically as a tool for helping others achieve their health and fitness goals.

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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