Former high school dropout Ngan Nguyen is graduating with her eye on a career in alternative energy.

Ngan Nguyen
Ngan Nguyen

Ngan Nguyen was 15 when she climbed out of her bedroom window after a family argument and caught a ride with some friends to Portland. Unsurprisingly, graduating college was not on her mind. In fact, the idea of college would have seemed ridiculous. Nguyen had dropped out of high school earlier that year, and was title toward a life of cheap apartments, couch surfing and working long hours for low pay in Portland.

It wasn’t promising.

But that wasn’t the life for Nguyen, at least not in the long run. After six months in Portland, she decided to go back to night school. “I don’t remember what drove that decision. I was tired of going out and partying all the time. I actually really enjoyed school. So I went back,” she says.

For the 4 months it took to get her diploma, Nguyen worked at Walgreens in the mornings and Millennia in the Clackamas Mall in the evenings. She did her homework late into the night. “Those jobs barely paid anything. After rent and bills, I’d have about 75 dollars left,” says Nguyen. The teachers at Marshall High School, where Nguyen got her diploma, were understanding of her schedule. They also encouraged her to go to college. “I thought, ‘I’m scraping by,’’ and it sounded like fun,” Nguyen says.

On June 13, Nguyen will graduate from Oregon State with a double major in biochemistry and biophysics and bioengineering, with a degree from the University Honors College. And she’s just getting started. After graduation, she’s staying in Corvallis to work at Beaver Biodiesel, a renewable energy company of which she is co-owner, and where she will also get to use her science and engineering skills. Nguyen is also co-owner of the high-end cosmetics and skin care company, Sulirese, that she and some friends are about to launch.

Nguyen made the most of her time at OSU once she transferred here from Linn-Benton Community College. In her sophomore year, she worked with Professor Tory Hagen and post-doctorate researcher Kate Shay her sophomore year, trying to determine the activation of the protein Nrf2 (which triggers the transcription of a series of antioxidant enzymes). She continued her research throughout that summer with Howard Hughes Medical Institute funding, and used the data for her University Honors thesis. Nguyen also interned at MIT last summer, working in biomedical engineering on sequential drug delivery. When she got back to Corvallis in the fall, she started with Beaver Biodiesel.

Nguyen knows graduate school is in her future – perhaps in biomedical engineering, or chemical engineering in renewable energy. She’s also interested in getting an MBA.

“I’m pretty excited given everything that’s happened,” says Nguyen. “I never would have thought five years ago that I would be in college and have a choice of jobs. I know that things have been the worst and worked out fine. And I’m excited for what the future brings.”

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