Prestigious scholarship recognizes medical student’s activism

When medical student Pauline Nguyen was recently awarded one of the most prestigious medical education scholarships in America – the Herbert W. Nickens Medical Student Scholarship – it confirmed that both Nguyen and UC Davis are national leaders in addressing health inequities.

Pauline Nguyen Pauline Nguyen

Nguyen, selected for her leadership role as a social justice activist, is the seventh Nickens scholarship winner at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Among the 154 accredited medical schools across the country, UC Davis now sits at the top of the Nickens recipient list, tied with the medical schools at Stanford University and UCLA.

The Nickens Scholarship is awarded by the Association of American Medical Colleges to just five outstanding medical school students entering their third year. The scholarship, which was established nearly 20 years ago and comes with a $5,000 award, recognizes students for their efforts to eliminate inequities in medical education and health care, as well as their strong desire to address the educational, societal and health care needs of racial and ethnic minorities.

Each medical school can submit one student for consideration for the highly competitive award.

“Pauline personifies the missions of the UC Davis School of Medicine – to end health disparities, spread diversity across health care and make the world a healthier, better place,” said School of Medicine Dean Allison Brashear. “She is making a difference today and I have no doubt she will make even a bigger difference in the communities she will serve during her career as a primary care physician.

“We are enormously proud of Pauline and the hard work she has performed inside and outside the lecture halls to earn this well-deserved scholarship,” Brashear said.

Nguyen aspires to be a primary care physician

Nguyen is in her final year of the school’s three-year medical degree program, Accelerated Competency-based Education in Primary Care (ACE-PC).

She describes herself as “deeply humbled” to be a part of “the amazing group of students and activists who have received this award.”

When she’s not studying or seeing patients at Kaiser Permanente under the guidance of family medicine physician Mark Babo, Nguyen can be found raising awareness for and improving the health of people of color, including victims of police violence.

Nguyen, who proudly says she lacks a “political filter,” has taken active roles with several student run organizations at UC Davis School of Medicine, including White Coats for Black Lives, Code Blue and Southeast Asians in Medicine.

She helped organize the 2018 “die in” on the Sacramento medical school campus, where dozens of students in white coats demanded police accountability and trauma-informed care in under-resourced communities. Their demonstration was in response to the Sacramento Police Department’s fatal shooting of Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old unarmed black man.

She was also instrumental in encouraging 700 students at other medical schools to sign a petition demanding action from elected officials and healthcare institutions.

Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who work in nail salons, was born in Anaheim and aspires to be a primary care provider in Orange County in either family medicine or pediatrics, she says, because of her desire to improve the health of immigrant and refugee communities.

“As a physician, I don’t just want to serve the community,” she said. “I want to be part of the community.”

Influenced to advocate for Vietnamese-Americans

Nguyen studied public health and education during her undergraduate years at UC Berkeley thinking she would become a teacher.

But a job at Asian Health Services, a Federally Qualified Health Center in Oakland’s Chinatown, set her on a course toward medicine.

While working at the clinic, she was inspired by a Vietnamese-American physician who launched an initiative to educate nail salon workers about the health problems associated with their profession. The program, called Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, alerted workers to the cancer risk from certain chemicals and provided tips on how to reduce back pain, arthritis and respiratory problems.

“I just remember thinking that was so amazing because it really resonated with me,” Nguyen said. “I didn’t know doctors could be activists in politics, current events and social issues.”

She also said she would not be where she is in her education and career without the sacrifices her parents made.

Nguyen’s father graduated second in his high school class in Vietnam and wanted to be a doctor, but he couldn’t afford college. Instead, he got drafted to fight for the South Vietnamese forces supported by the U.S.

When Saigon fell in 1975, the communist government sent her father to a reeducation camp for seven years. After his release, he married and started a family. In 1992, a U.S. program for war refugees allowed the family to immigrate to the United States.

“I always tell people,” Nguyen said, “I’m the product of very resilient and strong survivors.”

A “champion for health equity”

Nguyen was nominated for the Nickens Scholarship by a team of faculty and staff members led by Internal Medicine Professor Jorge Garcia.

“From the humblest of beginnings as the daughter of hardworking Vietnamese immigrants and the first member of her family to attend college in the U.S., Pauline now unassumingly stands as a powerful health care leader,” Garcia said. “She is a burgeoning family physician and champion for health equity, social justice, and diversity and inclusion excellence in medicine and medical education.”

Herbert W. Nickens, whom the scholarship is named after, was the founding vice president of the AAMC’s Division of Community and Minority Programs. He is credited with influencing medical schools across the nation to focus attention on supporting and increasing the numbers of underrepresented and ethnic minorities in medicine.

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