She may be small in stature but around the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) in Aurora, Colo., Teresa Nguyen is as big as they come. She sits tall, confident and powerful in her motorized wheelchair and when she accelerates, Teresa dares the rest of us to try and keep up.
"Although she's just graduating this year, Teresa is already changing our world," said ColoradoSPH Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Teresa's advisor, Jan Gascoigne. "She's nationally recognized for her work with adolescents with disabilities and I know she'll continue to make a significant difference in that population level. Individually, she will continue to change all of those she meets."
Teresa's personal experience as a person with a disability is what drives her passion. She was born with the genetic brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, soon after her parents emigrated from Vietnam. Since then, she's undergone nearly a dozen major surgeries to insert rods in her bones to make them stronger.
Navigating the health care system
"My parents were told they shouldn't expect me to survive past my second birthday," Nguyen said. "All my accomplishments are due to their refusal to let that happen. They didn't know the language nor the health care system but somehow they managed through my childhood. Then, once I turned 13, I became my own advocate and learned how to navigate the different systems myself."
Through her experiences, Teresa has intimately known the challenges of transitioning from pediatric healthcare to the complicated systems for adults with disabilities; she's felt the gaps, recognizing early on that young adults can often feel lost.
"I encourage teens to research the systems and their own health care needs," said Nguyen.
"When you can manage your own health in adulthood, the outcomes tend to be better. Many young people with disabilities aren't encouraged to take on this kind of responsiblity but they're more than capable. Learning these skills at an early age can lead to increased leadership and independence."
Brave step to CU-Boulder
Teresa's path to increased independence and confidence began with those early attempts to navigate the health care system and mold it to her needs. Years later, during her final year at Legacy High School she realized she was ready for the next step -- college.
"I knew that all of my high school friends were going to college and I wanted to be just like them. I had to be brave about it and explore the possibilities."
She researched what it would take to live independently in a dormitory and decided to attend the University of Colorado Boulder. She convinced her parents that leaving home was something she needed to do and that she was prepared to take on the responsibility. She and her mother practiced the simple everyday tasks that her mother had always helped her with, like getting in and out of bed and taking a shower.
"It was all so new and a little scary," said Nguyen. "But, going away to college was something I absolutely had to do. I encourage all young adults to leave home if they have the opportunity. But, it's especially valuable for students with disabilities. In addition to my educational journey, the life skills I learned were priceless."
Mastering Public Health
Teresa has lobbied for policy change, served on an advisory committee to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and has even worked for the U.S. State Department. Now, Nguyen is ready to take on even more with her master's in public health and a concentration in community and behavioral health from the Colorado School of Public Health.
"Graduating with an advanced degree is a big accomplishment, especially for my parents," said Nguyen. "Family demands forced them to give up their education when they were just fourteen years old. Everything they've done for me has paid off and I'm so grateful to them."
After Commencement, Nguyen plans to continue traveling and speaking from experience to advocate for people with disabilities attempting to navigate the health care system. She'd like to pursue her PhD and talks about starting an inclusive health care clinic for adolescents with disabilities.
Leading from the heart
"I'm happy I chose this career path," she said. "It fits me so well. And, my two years at CU Anschutz have been some of the best of my life. The network I've built within the school and with my fellow students will be invaluable as we pursue common missions and passions in the future."
"The first time I met Teresa," said Gascoigne, in a final remark, "As a student in my class, I noticed her passion for public health right off. She leads by example and truly leaves a mark on our school. Everyone is changed when they're around Teresa. Her determination and spirit are contagious."
"Personally, she's reminded me how much one person can accomplish if they stay focused and lead with their heart."
Story by Marcia Neville for University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Division of Student Affairs.