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Portrait of a Saigon Student Preparing for an International University

In many ways, Minh Ha Nguyen is an average Vietnamese teenager - she frequents milk tea shops, strums her guitar in her downtime and loves to meet up with friends at streetside stands.

But in other ways she is exceptional - Minh Ha recently received a full scholarship to study biomedical science at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and moved to Australia to begin her first year in hopes of becoming a cancer researcher.

Vietnamese students routinely achieve very high test scores and routinely display the aptitude and work ethic needed to excel at any university in the world. Yet few ever do go abroad, in large part because they didn't have any contact with institutions outside of Vietnam. Saigon's European International School (EIS), where Minh Ha studied, however, arranges weekly visits by representatives from top universities from around the globe.

During Year 12, one of Minh Ha's guidance counselors encouraged her to compete in an essay competition organized by a UTS entity and ANZ Bank. Her discussion of leadership was selected as one of six winners. So when she later met with a UTS staff member at one of the university fairs for EIS students, she already had a strong relationship with the school. Her counselors then helped her navigate the complex application process, which enabled her to secure the prestigious scholarship.

While packing for Sydney, Minh Ha displayed incredible poise and confidence regarding her rapidly approaching university career. For most 19-year-olds who had never ventured outside Southeast Asia, the prospect of leaving one's family and moving thousands of miles away would be terrifying. Minh Ha, however, brushes off suggestions of being worried about culture shock or rough transitions. Instead she is excited to take a selfie with a quokka, an Australian animal dubbed “the world’s happiest animal,” and hopes that during her first year she will have some free time to practice music. Much of this self-assurance comes from her empowering experience at EIS.

Minh Ha admits that before she enrolled at EIS in Grade Nine she was painfully shy. When meeting with family friends and even children younger than herself, she was too nervous to even talk and admits "it was very awkward to be with them. "Now, however, she is an outgoing chatterbox eager to strike up conversations and meet new people.

A major source of development began when she was made Student Council President. “It was the first time I was a leader” she explains, and says it “made me go out of my comfort zone” to interact with different people while encouraging her to take responsibility for decisions. Similarly, because her class at EIS included only eight students, she wasn’t able to simply fade into the background. Instead, she had no choice but to take an active role in discussions.

The classroom's multicultural makeup also helped ready Minh Ha for studying abroad. She revealed that she is likely to be the only Vietnamese student in her biology classes at UTS, but her time spent surrounded by students from South Korea, China and Germany not only honed her English but also gave her valuable practice in making connections across cultural barriers. "EIS made me really open-minded," she says, in addition to offering her a global perspective.

When preparing for university, many students experience anxiety over the difficulty of exams or the rigors of essays. Minh Ha, however, expresses no such concerns. She says that EIS's two years of International Baccalaureate (IB) coursework have fully prepared her for the coming challenges. The program's emphasis on research methods, critical thinking and independent study provided her with the tools she will need to succeed in university lecture halls and laboratories.

Another of Minh Ha’s qualities that stands out is her certainty about her intended field of study. To help develop research and inquiry skills for their IB essays, all Grade Ten EIS students undertake an independent “Personal Project.” Minh Ha decided to explore cancer, a subject she knew little about. The work, which resulted in a song she wrote about cancer, helped awaken her curiosity about the topic and led her to want to study biomedicine.

She will enter her major with a head-start. After graduating last spring, Minh Ha worked as an intern in a local hospital, getting firsthand experience working with people within her field that may one day be her patients and co-workers.

Minh Ha's hospital internship came about through another of her opportunities at EIS. She was a founding member of a mentoring program that pairs younger students with older ones. The mother of a student she tutored worked at the hospital and helped arrange the position. Student-led clubs, organizations and community workshops are just some of the extraordinary opportunities that not only open doors for EIS students, but help prepare them for real-world challenges.

While Minh Ha is uniquely primed for a world-class education, she is still in many ways a typical teenager. She is worried about making friends, hopes she gets along with her roommates, concerned she won’t be able to find muối mè (crushed nuts typically mixed with sticky rice) or Vietnamese-style dried pork, and isn’t sure where she will go after graduation. One thing she is sure of though is her ability to succeed in university.

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