Building My Own Life for College and Beyond

Hi! My name is Valencia Nguyen and I am a second-year Industrial and Systems Engineering student working on the KEEN project as an undergraduate research assistant. I am also a first-generation student who initially had no idea how to navigate college, let alone figure out my career path. So, I thought I’d share my experiences and how I ended up where I am today. 

Going into college, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’ve seen what’s in the movies but had no idea what it’s really like. I ended up having an un-traditional first-year experience due to COVID-19. When I look back on it, it’s almost a blur. In the beginning, I remember how I barely left the dorm. All classes were online so there was almost no reason to leave except to get food from the dining halls. I had roommates who I will always be grateful for as it felt like we were all in it together. However, I still felt quite isolated. I knew there was more to college than just academics. 

So, I put myself out there. I went to the Student Involvement Fair in the fall and ended up with a whole list of organizations that I was interested in joining. At one point I was “in” 8 clubs at once, which I do not recommend. I created a tier system to determine which clubs I was going to stay in and those that I would leave. There were clubs that I wanted to get involved with their leadership, then there were clubs that I enjoyed just being a part of the general body, and then the clubs that I felt weren’t my priority that I would leave. Finding the right organizations that I wanted to be a part of was a big step for me in making college my own. Currently, I am involved with the Society of Women Engineers and Off the Lake Productions. Society of Women Engineers allowed me to find a community of women from all engineering majors and be able to grow professionally and personally. I’ve taken on a leadership position for next year as Website Director. The second is Off the Lake Productions which is a student-led theatre organization in which I am the Musical Technical Director. I wanted to dedicate time away from academics and into my passion for theatre. I have found so much value in getting involved within these groups as a way to meet new people and form awesome relationships. 

Next, I looked for an on-campus job. I honestly can’t remember what got me interested in looking for one, but I knew I thought it’d be cool to have a job throughout my college career. I started my first job in the second semester of my freshman year as an instructor assistant for a python class. I had taken it my first semester and enjoyed it so I decided to apply for the position. I really loved the opportunity to help other students throughout the course. While I loved my time as an instructor assistant, I wanted to do more. So, I explored how to get involved with research on campus. I “researched” the different projects that were going on around campus, which is an insane amount. I then stumbled upon a team within Engineering Education called the RIME Collaborative which I was interested in. I set up a meeting with Dr. Rachel Kajfez and here we are! During my time with RIME, I’ve been able to work on my own research paper for the KEEN project and have been able to dive into the research world. 

Another challenge I had to navigate was building my professional career. I had no connections and no idea how I was supposed to get an internship. I utilized Engineering Career Services and Society of Women Engineers events on building your professional profile and network. I also attended several career fairs in order to gain exposure and practice talking with companies. If I were to share any advice, it would be to advocate for yourself during interviews! In addition, I learned to not be afraid to apply to jobs and companies that may be a reach to get an interview with. You never know where you’ll get an opportunity. Last summer, I got an internship with the Navy through a scholarship I applied for. I didn’t even end up getting the scholarship but they still reached out to me. This upcoming fall, I’ll be doing a co-op with Disney in which I got an interview by simply submitting my resume. The work scene can be unpredictable, so I apply for things I am interested in no matter what because you never know where it can take you. I have learned a lot throughout college when it comes to navigating the professional world and feel confident about the future.

To conclude, there is no way to do college right. Everyone has their own path and way of doing things. Something I will always advocate for is not to be afraid to reach out for help! I know I am no expert in certain topics, so I try to reach out or attend sessions where I can educate myself.