Dr. James Nguyen ('98) was just 12 when he started studying at Santa Ana College (SAC). Now, at 39, he's a leading interventional cardiologist in Bradenton, Florida, and has been an active physician in the medical field for over 10 years. Nguyen, an Orange County native, was born to parents who immigrated from Vietnam. His father was part of the South Vietnamese army and had escaped by boat.
“Initially, when they started off, it was kind of a hardship for them," Nguyen said. “One, learning a new language, then losing everything they had in Vietnam and starting completely over." But his parents prioritized his education and worked multiple jobs to ensure the well-being of him and his family, he said. His dad worked as a technician and his mom was a secretary at SAC.
“They basically gave up everything for the prospect of a new life, a new future," Nguyen said. “They only came here with the hopes of achieving the American dream. They worked pretty hard for it."
Nguyen is now a top cardiologist but was far from being the teacher's favorite when he was in elementary school. He was known to be a troublemaker, disrespectful to authority and doing whatever he wanted in the classroom. When he got to middle school, his mother told him he needed to take things seriously, but Nguyen told her the classes were boring and easy. His mom sat in on a class to see for herself and agreed that her son needed more of a challenge. She proposed the idea of transferring him to more advanced or honors classes but teachers were skeptical since he seemingly appeared unable to manage standard classes.
“My mom said, 'I know my son can do it. He can do it. You just need to give him a chance,'" Nguyen said. After improving his grades, he was transferred to more advanced classes and got straight A's.
Nguyen's mother, who was working as a secretary at SAC, came upon a meeting that led to his start at the college. He registered for 12 units of courses one summer and again, got straight A's. While he was a student, he served as a student senator, the vice president of the Pre-Med Club, was involved with the Vietnamese Student Association and also worked as a math tutor. He graduated from SAC in 1998 with an associate's degree in biology and went on to receive his bachelor's degree in biology from the University of California, Irvine (UCI). He was on the path to pursuing a career in medicine but faced a major roadblock after he graduated from UCI in 2000.
“At one point, I'll be honest, I didn't know if I was going to be able to make it through getting into medical school," Nguyen said. “My mom came down with [tuberculosis] and unfortunately with the whole recession that was going on at that time, we lost the house and we were living in a garage," Nguyen said. “The things that just happen in life … it could have just taken me out, and I could have just not made it through. Like I said, you will meet obstacles in life, and I'll be frank with you, things just happen that you can't control but you have to find a way to overcome it or figure out a way around it. Like I said, you just persevere and make it through and you'll be just fine."
It took him an extra two years before he entered medical school — at the age of 19 — but he ultimately received his Doctor of Medicine from St. George's University.
Nguyen was inducted into Santa Ana College's Hall of Fame in 2011. He also worked for two years as a teacher's assistant in SAC's Department of Physiology.
He has no regrets about skipping high school and starting college before he was a teenager. Medical school, residency and fellowships alone took a total of 12 years.
“I was lucky enough to shave off a lot of that time, and when I finally finished everything, I was 30 years old," he said. “I [was an] interventional cardiologist at 30 years old, and that's a feat!"
He's skilled in coronary interventions, determining blockages, deploying stents and identifying valve abnormalities, but his next feat comes this spring when he and his wife expect their first child.
Dr. James Nguyen will be the keynote speaker for the grand opening of the new, $70 million
Science Center building, which opens to students Spring 2022. This state-of-the-art building features a Science Learning Center, new laboratories, and classrooms where students can take a variety of science classes, including biology, geology, chemistry and more starting this spring semester.