Self empowerment journey of first generation vietnamese PhD student in STEM

Image: Vivian Tran

During her challenging journey as a multicultural first generation PhD student at La Trobe University, Vivian Tran made the most of opportunities that crossed her path. Understanding the power of vulnerability, the importance of choosing to put herself out there and fear nothing, Vivian shares her story of self empowerment.

When I started my journey as a PhD student 2 years ago, I promised myself two things:

1- Openness: I would be more open to new opportunities, and;

2- Motivation: that I would endeavour to explore and find my ‘why’.

Being a quiet person in high school, I questioned whether I was good enough, and had the need for others’ approval. My acceptance into the PhD program brought upon a remarkable change. Here are some lessons I learnt through my journey. I hope to inspire others like me with these.

Be open to new opportunities

During my first year, I received an email from my supervisor with an attached call-out for mentors by In2Science (a STEM mentoring program for school students). At first, I was hesitant (of course) but then thought back to the promise I made myself and decided “why not?”

The more I learnt about the program, the more it resonated with me as a first-generation Vietnamese-Australian. The program values equal opportunities for students in low socioeconomic schools, the importance of STEM skills to solve future economic problems, and peer-mentor support. Everything I wished I had throughout high school.

Learn to be agile

I started off as an in-class mentor and, of course, was nervous about meeting my class. I tried to prepare myself for the questions they would ask, practised techniques to talk to them and how I would approach them. But in the end, everything I had prepared for went out the window.

They were not like what I had imagined. They were energetic, accepting, kind and importantly, curious. I will always be grateful for this. It taught me to think on my feet and to ‘steer into the skid’, an invaluable lesson which has helped me grow into a better scientist and person.

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Trust your team

While I started to develop the relationship with the students, I understood the most important aspect of mentorship, trust. With trust, it becomes easier to influence the mindsets of mentees. Science can be fun and thats what I wanted them to learn. I was eager to see my students each week.

I was excited to hear about their weekend and their learning throughout the week. As the weeks went on, I started to feel a sense of fulfilment and joy that I had rarely experienced. This feeling, I learnt, came about because I had found my ‘why’.

Give back

Growing up as a daughter of immigrant parents was quite confusing. I never really understood why there wasn’t anyone like myself in a position of influence and had few role models to look up to. I was unaware of what opportunities were out there for me as a high school student and what university would be like for someone like me – especially in STEM. It wasn’t until I became a PhD student that I started to realise how much of a problem this was.

I understood that a positive mentor can nurture a young person. I am now surrounded by my incredible mentors (both women and men) in STEM, who strive for change and inclusivity. This is another aspect of my ‘why.’ I want to give back. I want to give all students the same opportunities and accessibility to resources and ultimately, I want to be that positive figure for the students whose shoes I was once in.

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Believe in yourself

Receiving the ‘Role Model of the Year’ award from In2science in 2019 really reinforced this mindset. It was comforting to know that what I had been doing, well… worked! The path I have taken since then has been to explore what other opportunities are out there for someone who wants to combine their love of science and passion for STEM engagement.

I learnt a lot about myself this year, the power of vulnerability, the importance of sharing my story and choosing to put myself out there by not fearing fear. I cannot wait to see what 2021 has in store for me!

Some of the Australian STEM Mentoring programs in STEM worth checking out are:

Industry Mentoring Network in STEM

Women in STEMM Australia Mentoring

STEM Sisters Mentoring Program

STEM Women Mentoring

Franklin Women Mentoring

Vivian is a PhD student residing in Melbourne. She has a Bachelor’s (Honours) in Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Physiology with a First Class Honours from Monash University and is currently pursuing her PhD candidature at La Trobe University. 

Astha Singh

Author: Dr Astha Singh

Astha is the Managing Editor at Refraction Media. She is a STEM Marketer and holds a Honors, Masters & PhD degree in Science. She has been producing STEM marketing content for over 10 years and is an avid advocate of Diversity in the STEM industry.


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