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Four-Year Scholar, First-Generation Student to Graduate from UF/IFAS CALS

As a first-generation college student and Vietnamese immigrant, Phong Truong sees his heritage and socioeconomic status as playing valuable roles in his thirst for knowledge and journey toward earning a college degree.

On May 4, Truong will celebrate his graduation at the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) student recognition ceremony at 2 p.m. in the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The ceremony is part of the University of Florida’s commencement weekend.

Honored as a UF Four-Year Outstanding Scholar, Truong will join nearly 950 CALS students who graduate with their bachelor’s and master’s degrees this spring. More than 60 CALS students graduate with Ph.D. degrees on May 3.

The college celebrated its student award recipients at the annual CALS Scholarship and Leadership Awards Banquet held on April 18, where Truong spoke as emcee. Award-winning faculty and staff in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) were also recognized at the banquet.

In 1999, Truong’s parents sold his father’s small, open-air vending space in An Bang, Vietnam where they tailored clothes. An Bang is in the Phú Vang district of the Thua Thien Hue province. From these proceeds, the family, including Truong’s older sister, relocated to the U.S. His parents worked their way toward owning a nail salon business in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

Truong’s father and uncle at his parents’ open-air vending space they sold to buy their family’s passage to the U.S.

Truong with his older sister in Vietnam before coming to the U.S.

Growing up, Truong remembers his parents working long hours, seven days a week, in order to provide for the family. Not having gone to college themselves, Truong’s parents constantly encouraged him as well as his older sister and younger brother to excel at school.

“My family has always seen education as being a way up the ladder for us,” Truong said. “My career interests in the area of public health and human rights very much stem from, and are rooted in, my story and identity. I might not have had the opportunities that moving to the States has offered.”

Truong came to UF through the inaugural Pathway to Campus Enrollment (PaCE) cohort. This program provides freshmen with the opportunity to begin their UF degree with online courses through UF Online and then transition to campus to complete an undergraduate degree. Truong eagerly accepted the opportunity to study at a Top 10 institution, and began his coursework in the microbiology and cell science major.

“CALS and PaCE have been key to molding me into who I am today and to discovering my individuality…ultimately leading to my intellectual development while at UF,” Truong said. “The theme there is that the program one chooses does not define or limit what one can achieve at UF.”

While at UF, Truong explored numerous research opportunities both within and outside the university. Since 2016, Truong has worked as a research assistant with Dr. Todd Golde in the UF College of Medicine’s department of neuroscience evaluating a potential pathway to cure Alzheimer’s disease. This research is incorporated into Truong’s CALS honors thesis. Among his many accolades, Truong has been part of the University Scholars Program and mentored first-year researchers in the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program.

Truong with CALS Dean Elaine Turner at the 2019 CALS Scholarship and Leadership Awards Banquet where he served as emcee for the evening.

Truong’s mentors from a research internship at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University led him to participate in one of his most formative experiences as a student. During the summer of 2018, Truong served as a research assistant through Global Health Uganda and CHILD Lab at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda. Through his research and interactions with the Ugandan people, Truong discovered his desire to work in healthcare for international communities.

“I believe this experience has allowed me to better understand the profundities of my upbringing and what others around the world face,” Truong said. “It is the sense of belonging to a local and international community that encourages me to want to serve in the larger arena of global health. My heritage and identity as an immigrant gives a special weight to the meaning of my education and what I hope to do with my life and career.”

With the goal to earn a medical doctorate, Truong desires to help inform better health policy, humanitarian aid and international development work. Upon graduation, Truong will spend the next two years in the Johns Hopkins Doctoral Diversity Program.

Truong conducts research in a lab for his CALS Honors Scholar thesis project.

“Phong has a great view of the world in the sense that he is open-minded and does not shy away from experiences,” said Monika Oli, one of Truong’s professors and a senior lecturer in the UF/IFAS microbiology and cell science department. “He makes the best of the opportunities he encounters. Global awareness is a key element of any future career, including medicine. You meet people who are different from you, which changes your perspective. Phong’s story has a great message that encourages other students to get out of the country and explore other cultures.”

Truong invites fellow students to think about their guiding principles, values and attitudes as they navigate their own education and career paths.

“Labels, and the system, do not have to define you; be curious and explore,” Truong said. “Discover your individuality, but stay proximal to the communities and the issues around you. Write your story, and don’t be afraid to fail in doing it.”

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The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. The college has received more total (national and regional combined) USDA teaching awards than any other institution. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.

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