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Connestee Falls Scholarship Program: Nguyen Adapts To Life In The Big Apple

Despite the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Connestee Falls Student Scholarship Program has launched its 33rd year of raising money for scholarships for Transylvania County students. The pandemic, of course, will cause this to be an especially challenging year not only for the program and for the students and their families, but also for the businesses in Transylvania County that have traditionally supported the scholarship program's efforts to help the students.

With this difficult business climate in mind, the program will not be actively soliciting donations and auction items from its local business partners. Instead, it reiterates its thanks to those partners and encourages everyone in the Transylvania County community to shop locally and support our local businesses in any way possible.

At the same time, it is important to remember the talented, ambitious students in the community who need help to continue their educa

tions. One of those students, John Nguyen, has recently returned to Brevard. A Connestee Falls scholarship was part of the package that enabled John to enroll at Columbia University last fall, a few months after his graduation from Brevard High School.

An avid student of science and a researcher, John was involved in the T.I.M.E. 4 Real Science program at Brevard High during all four of his years there, and he is continuing his commitment to science in the much larger world of New York City.

Unfortunately, his second semester has been interrupted by the pandemic. The disruption to his education started in the second week of March with the cancellation of classes and the shift to remote learning; then in spring break the students were given two days to pack everything, find storage for their belongings and move out of their dorms. John managed to stuff all his possessions into a cart that he had to push 20 blocks to a storage unit in Harlem. He then returned to his mother's home in Brevard where he continues his online classes.

John acknowledges that his first semester in New York was difficult. Whereas many of his classmates arrived at Columbia from elite preparatory schools and knew other students from those schools, John knew no one. Also, being a first-generation college student from a Vietnamese family, he felt out of place.

Eventually, however, this intrepid young man, who with his lab partner discovered a novel fungus while he was in high school, joined some clubs such as the Vietnamese Student Association and the Columbia Science Review and began to make friends. He also was excited to be offered and accept a job in a research laboratory at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, where he worked four days per week on malaria drug resistance and drug discovery.

He also served as an Alma Mater Ambassador with the Columbia Office of Undergraduate Admissions, a program that reaches out to connect with rural areas. In this capacity he coordinated visits over his winter break with four high school students in Western North Carolina "to assist in Columbia's rural initiative and advise students on the opportunities that Columbia provides."

Another part of John's New York experience was becoming an editor and author for the "unSEAled zine," an initiative that publishes and prints an annual "zine" that showcases the projects of South East Asian artists, musicians, writers and creators to highlight the South East Asian culture. As part of this venture, he "interviewed South East Asian creatives at Columbia and in the larger NYC community. At the end of the semester, there was a launch party complete with food from all South East Asian countries, live performances from South East Asian creatives, and copies of the unSEAled zine – hot off the press."

The challenges of adapting to the Big Apple aside, John found the academic diversity of the city and the university, where about 20 percent of the students are from abroad, to be the most interesting part of his new experience. He describes it as studying abroad without leaving the country. He also came to appreciate the many different opportunities for education at Columbia, which has a CORE curriculum. At first he hated having to take the required humanities courses because he sees himself as a scientist, but eventually he came to appreciate that the courses made him see science in a different way; he is using his background in science as a basis for understanding Western philosophy and literature.

Before the pandemic caused such disruption, John had planned a summer internship at Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., in their Research Experience for Undergraduates program. While his main interest is environmental biology, he wants to explore translational ecology as well. He will now be doing the internship online, working with Dr. Sara Batterman and Wenguang Tang of Leeds University, and examining data sets to determine how tropical forest carbon sinks can offset human carbon emissions now and into the future.

The Connestee Falls Student Scholarship Program is very proud to have had a part in helping this remarkable young man pursue his dreams.

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