Trang Bui: What Drives Your Curiosity?

CSE graduate Trang Bui overcame adversity to become the first in her family to earn a college degree

In her heart, Trang Bui knew the key to a better life was getting a college education. But her Asian cultural values of placing family obligations before individual pursuits turned a typical four-year journey into 17 years.

Life has not been easy for the recent electrical engineering graduate who came to the United States at the age of 17. Born in 1983, Bui grew up in Vietnam during a time when the country was still rebuilding after the war.

The war had been difficult for her family. Her grandfather had been killed, two of her uncles experience post traumatic stress syndrome, and the government took most of what they owned. Still, Bui’s grandmother hoped for a better life and immigrated to the United States where she worked three jobs to earn enough money to bring over her remaining family members.

A tough start in the U.S.

Bui and her family arrived in 2000. She spoke no English when she began her first day at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, Minn.

“I didn’t know anything. I didn’t have any friends,” Bui said.

“There were girls who spoke Vietnamese and helped with paperwork and getting me situated,” she added. “Yet, it was very difficult.”

After graduation, she enrolled at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minn. But soon her sister, who was born with a heart defect, needed surgery. So Bui dropped out.

“Our family needed money,” She said. “We didn’t have any health insurance. At the time, I believed it was more important for me to help my family rather than spend money on school.”

She found work as a cashier, eventually moving to a better position with Unisys Corporation where she worked as a clerk until 2006. Then Bui’s sister learned she needed a pacemaker, which meant another surgery and someone who could accompany her to doctor appointments. To help her sister, Bui started as a nail salon technician, which provided more flexibility in her work life.

“At the nail salon I met a lot of people, and I also learned most of my English,” Bui said.

“One customer encouraged me to go back to school, so I took her advice and enrolled in St. Paul College,” she said.

Back to school

Bui originally hoped to earn a nursing degree. Her chemistry professor suggested she might be better suited for engineering after seeing her aptitude for math and science. However, the college didn’t have engineering—so she transferred to Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn. There she completed her liberal arts requirements and other prerequisites before applying to University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering.

“When I came to the U in 2013, they gave me the Boston Scientific Scholarship,” Bui said.

“I was so excited,” Bui added, “because, finally, I could go to school full time and finish a degree.”

She had decided to pursue electrical engineering.

Unfortunately, there would be more setbacks. Her mother was laid off from her job, and eight months later, her father suffered a heart attack.

“I was so stressed and depressed,” Bui said. “Our family was in really bad financial shape.”

Persistence pays off

Still she kept her focus, regularly talking to her advisor and taking advantage of student support services. Finally, she graduated last spring—four years later—during which her father also had a stroke, she got married, and she got pregnant. Her son was born two days before her last final, which she completed.

In June 2017, she started work as an electrical engineer for Cain Thomas Associates Inc., a consulting firm in White Bear Lake, Minn.

“It hasn't been a smooth road,” Bui said.

“Yet, I'm thankful for the financial support and encouragement I received and being the first in my family to graduate from college,” she said. “I will be able to tell my children some day, ‘I made it, despite all the setbacks.’”

Story by Silva Young

If you’d like to support University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering students, visit our CSE Giving website.