<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=799546403794687&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
CU Nursing student Lena Truong

“This Is a Huge Win for Us”

CU Nursing Student Becomes First Person in Her Family to Earn a College Degree

Written by Molly Smerika on May 16, 2024

Lena Truong has a very personal connection to healthcare.

Truong's parents immigrated to the US from Vietnam. Growing up, she went with them to doctor's appointments, often acting as their interpreter. And she remembers the compassionate care doctors and nurses extended to her parents.

“As a kid, I remember healthcare providers spending extra time with my parents to explain things in a way that was palatable for them. They went to great lengths to ensure that my parents understood everything. We didn’t have insurance at the time and they always went the extra mile to make it affordable for us," she says. "Living in a close-knit community, where everyone knew each other, these providers would sometimes visit my parents at their business to check in on them. Their genuine concern meant a lot to us. I don’t think my family would be where they are today without the support from our community.”

Truong says she had the opposite experience in school. Her teachers didn’t try to connect with her or reach out to her.

“I went to a rural elementary school, where I was the only person of color. As a school-age child, feeling conspicuously different and experiencing exclusion from my peers was challenging enough," she says.  "However, anytime I was assigned an arts and crafts project, which should have been fun, only amplified my feelings of shame and embarrassment. My parents' inability to help me with these projects led to my failure in each one, and unfortunately, not a single teacher ever inquired about my home situation, the absence of parental assistance, or why I lacked the materials necessary to complete these projects as effectively as my classmates.”

A Second Chance

It took a few years for Truong to find her healthcare path. Initially drawn to Colorado for the mountains, she found herself working in the hospitality industry to support her love for skiing. However, she soon realized that she wanted a more fulfilling career path.

“I realized I wanted to help people in the same way that my parents' doctors and nurses had helped them,” she says. “My goal is to address the disparities in healthcare access, practice cultural competency, and provide additional assistance, particularly to non-English speakers. Often, these individuals feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit when they don't understand information provided by healthcare providers, fearing they may be a burden. As a nurse, I aim to delve deeper, ensuring they understand the status of their health and the importance of adhering to their treatment.”

Truong applied to the University of Colorado College of Nursing at Anschutz Medical Campus through the Community College of Denver’s Integrated Nursing Pathway program.

“I felt like this was my second chance at life to do something important and give back to my community," she says.  "My academic career in the past wasn’t so great. I’m a first-generation American who had to navigate college on my own without any guidance from my parents. Unsure of my path back then, I believe it was the lack of direction and the challenges I encountered as a first-generation college student that halted my progress.”

Truong explained her less-than-excellent academic career in her application to CU Nursing. She re-started her prerequisites, so she’d have a clean slate. She earned a 4.0 from the Community College of Denver.

"I included an addendum with my CU Nursing application to address my previous setbacks," she explains. “In it, I outlined what I learned from the past, my strategies to prevent similar occurrences in the future, and highlighted my perseverance throughout this journey to show that I’m a great fit for this program.”

Adjusting to School

Truong admits she didn’t have solid study skills when she came to CU Nursing, and that it took her a long time to figure out her learning style.

“I knew this was an opportunity of a lifetime and I wasn’t willing to throw it away. When I realized something wasn’t working, I asked for help for the first time. Much like my parents, I was reluctant to ever admit I needed help,” she says.

She reached out to one of her professors, Sarah Schwartz, MSN, RN, CNEn, with whom she had previously crossed paths during her time at CCD. The influence of Schwartz's genuine care and support significantly shaped her nursing school journey and created a safe environment to seek guidance.

"I was an emotional mess during our Zoom call,” she recalls. "While everyone else seemed to effortlessly ace their exams, I struggled to achieve the minimum no matter how many hours I put into studying. Having never completed my first bachelor's degree, I faced a significant learning curve. However, I found my passion in nursing, and I was determined to succeed."

Her professors helped her get back on track, and so did creating a study group with her classmates.

“We cultivated this supportive environment where we could lean on each other, not with just studying, but with emotional support as well,” she says. “We learned the value of working together as a team and reaped the benefits of that. My success in this program would not have been possible without the invaluable support of my clinical group and the friendships I made along the way.”

Another reason Truong chose CU Nursing is because of the college’s mission statement on diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a person of color and a member of the LGBTQ community, she underscores the importance of her experience and wants to bring DEI to the forefront of her nursing practice.

"Despite being a person of color who has had my fair share of experiences with discrimination and racism, my understanding of various cultural backgrounds remains limited. There is so much more I need to learn," she says.  "CU Nursing has been instrumental in broadening my perspective on different cultures and religions. Our faculty members offer valuable insights into these topics, and they regularly host guest speakers on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I've come to realize that nursing is a lifelong journey of learning. Education doesn't end after graduation; it continues to evolve indefinitely throughout this career.”

It’s More Than a Diploma

After graduation, Truong plans to stay in Colorado and recently accepted a position in the surgical progressive care unit at the University of Colorado Hospital. When she earns her diploma, her parents will be in the stands cheering her and her accomplishments on as she becomes the first person in her family to graduate with a college degree.

“This is such a huge win for us,” she says. “I'm embarking on a journey in healthcare, a field where I can make a meaningful difference in my community, stand as a representative for other minorities, and advocate for underrepresented groups. Finishing this degree signifies the culmination of all the hard work and sacrifices my parents have made. Their dream in immigrating here was to provide my sister and I with opportunities for a better life, and they have succeeded."