Halls of Fame
Thanh Minh Nguyen, M.D., Ph.D.
When Thanh Minh Nguyen, M.D., Ph.D., arrived on campus at Santa Ana College (then Rancho Santiago College) in 1986, he had only “textbook” knowledge of English as he had learned it in a refugee camp in Thailand, where he and his family spent more than two years after fleeing Vietnam.
He also had no high school diploma, because although he excelled in his studies in Vietnam, children of families who did not belong to the Communist party were not permitted to continue their studies beyond 12th grade.
“Thanh’s father saw a bleak future for his children, so at the age of 15, having only completed 10th grade, Thanh fled Vietnam by boat with his family,” recounts Prof. Elizabeth Macey (ret.), who nominated him for this award.
Today, we honor not only Dr. Thanh Minh Nguyen, M.D., Ph.D., but also the California community college system that offered him the opportunity to pursue an AA degree without a high school diploma, or the equivalent, a G.E.D. (General Education Diploma) and the faculty and staff who supported his efforts.
“In 1986, community college truly represented equality; it was open to all, regardless of who they were, or where they were in their lives. As the eldest of five children, my original goal was just to get an AA degree so that I could get a job and help support my family, but my parents agreed with my instructors that I needed to get a good education to have the best future. I never had heard of the University of California Los Angeles, Irvine, or Berkeley until Prof. Wayne Gibson who told me about them,” he says.
“My first memory is sitting in a pre-calculus class taught by Prof. Gibson,” Dr. Nguyen remembers. “I sat right in the front row, but he talked very fast using conversational and idiomatic English that I couldn’t understand, and I knew I couldn’t pass the course if I couldn’t understand what he was saying. So I went to talk to Prof. Gibson after class. He put a problem on the board and I solved it. Then he said, ‘Well, it seems like your problem is understanding English, not understanding math, so you have two choices: you can drop this class and take basic English, or before class you can read the chapter I am going to teach. Then, after class you can come to me and I will explain anything that you do not understand.’ I chose to read the chapter before class and study the vocabulary, and Prof. Gibson tutored me after class, and I passed the course with an ‘A’.
“Later I asked him why he had chosen to help me and he responded, ‘Why not, if a student is willing to work hard?’”
And work hard he did, studying the English dictionary during the bus ride from his family’s apartment in Santa Ana to the college.
Dr. Nguyen continues, “My second memory is English 101 and 102, taught by Mrs. Elizabeth Macey. Most people worried about a lot of red marks on their composition papers in Mrs. Macey’s class, but I welcomed them because Mrs. Macey was teaching me how to get all the stuff that doesn’t really matter out of the way in order to express my important points clearly and concisely.”
Dr. Nguyen graduated from Santa Ana College (Rancho Santiago College) in 1988 with an AS in Biological Sciences with highest honors, including the Johnson Memorial Scholarship and Outstanding Biology student. He graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1991 with Cum Laude and department honors and from Ohio State University College of Medicine and Public Health – Medical Scientist Program, MD and Ph.D. in Pharmacology, 2002. He completed his Baylor College of Medicine-Dept. of Pediatrics Residency in 2005, and the Baylor College of Medicine-Dept. of Pediatrics Endocrinology and Metabolism Fellowship Program in 2008.
In 2005 he was certified by the American Board of Pediatrics, and today he is a Pediatric Endocrinologist at Nemours Children’s Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida and on the medical staff at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville. His list of publications, honors and accomplishments are so extensive that they run several pages—single spaced.
“My success started by enrolling Santa Ana College; I not only got a strong foundation in math, English, philosophy and science, I had good role models who gave me the help I needed to succeed,” he says.
And Dr. Nguyen, in turn, has been a role model and tutor for hundreds of students starting in the learning center on campus and continuing at UCLA and Ohio State University.
“I have tutored minorities who are worried that they had been admitted to the college because of the color of their skin. I told them, ‘If that is the case, why does it matter? Just make sure you do your best when you walk through that door so that it remains open for others to follow.”
Marian Wright Edelman, LL.D., a MacArthur Fellow (1985) and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said, “Education is for improving the lives of others, and leaving your community and world better than you found it.”
What began as a quest for an AA degree at Santa Ana College in 1986 transformed not only the world of Thanh Minh Nguyen but also the world of everyone he touches, most of all the children he treats who have Type 1 (Juvenile) Diabetes, his area of specialization.
He explains, “If you can manage this disease, you give children a chance to achieve and become whomever and almost whatever they want to become. I tell children, ‘Diabetes is part of your life, but not the whole of your life. You can control it, or it can control you, and I am here with your parents to help you get all the skills you need to control it and live the life you want to live.’"