When An Nguyen Found His Calling

Yumi Wilson, SMU News

An Nguyen, DPT ’22, knows what it means to take a chance for a brighter future.

“My parents told me that they risked their lives fleeing Vietnam at the end of the war and came to the U.S. as refugees with less than $20 in their pockets,” he says. “And they saved enough money to buy a convenience store. They worked around the clock and eventually bought two more stores.”

An began working at convenience stores when he was in second grade. “In my family, the motto was: If you want to live and eat here, you contribute. I learned the importance of sacrifice and hard work early on.”

So, An always knew that he would one day join the family business — and that day came in 2010 after graduating with a biology degree from San Jose State University. “Even though I did want to pursue my own path, I knew I needed to give back,” he says.

Then, in 2016, life took a turn when An’s grandmother suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left side. “When my grandmother suffered a stroke, I stepped in to help because she spoke only Vietnamese,” says An, who served as her translator for caregivers.

“The physical therapists would ask me for help here and there, sometimes with hands-on things,” An says. “And I just became inspired by how rehab helped my grandmother get better and to be able to walk again. And that basically got me thinking, ‘Okay, this is something I want to do.’”

Convincing his parents wasn’t easy. “When I decided to change careers, I basically told them that I couldn’t run the business anymore,” he recalls. “And it was definitely difficult because they were so happy having me there and everything.”

Despite their concerns, An went ahead with his dream. He was admitted to SMU’s three-year Doctor of Physical Therapy program in 2019. Eventually, his parents came around and even helped him to pay for SMU. 

Getting over COVID

Things were starting to look up — until COVID hit in 2020.

“During the pandemic, it was just … so bleak,” Nguyen recalls. “As if graduate school wasn’t tough enough, we suddenly went from being hands-on in the classroom to learning about physical therapy through Zoom. It was really difficult at first.”

But An found a silver lining. “Online learning was like being invited into each other’s homes,” he says. “We learned a lot about the instructors, stuff we probably wouldn't have learned in the classroom. We met their partners, their kids, and their pets. Sometimes, I noticed a family photo or a guitar, and that would become a starting point for a conversation. It felt personal, like we were taking this journey together.”

An also connected with his classmates.

“We found ways to be there for each other,” he says. “We sent sincere messages and funny memes over a group chat, and we studied together over Zoom. Because of all of this, we've all become life-long friends.”

As COVID restrictions began to lift and clinical rotations resumed, An’s passion was reignited, and he discovered where he could make the biggest difference. “I have been in clinical rotation situations where I found out information about the Vietnamese-speaking patients that the doctors and the nurses didn't know,” he says. “And in some cases, the treatment plan changed because of the information I learned.”

That’s why, despite the challenges, An knows he made the right choice to become a physical therapist.

“Being at SMU and going through the clinical rotations, I think that just cemented it even more,” he says. “Every time I worked with a patient, I enjoyed it. It's been great getting to help them to reach their goals. It just keeps validating that I made the right choice.”

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