From Kent (WA) to Kalamazoo (MI), Jennifer Nguyen’s Medallion Journey Takes Flight

WMU Aviation Flight and Management Student Jennifer Nguyen
Posted by Tom Thinnes on

Medallion Scholarship recipient, Jennifer Nguyen and the College of Aviation Dean, Dr. Raymond Thompson at the 2023 Medallion Induction Ceremony

Put yourself in Jennifer Nguyen’s flight shoes. 

Her grandparents and immediate family were on the wrong side of the Vietnam War, which forced many of their peers to leave the home country. . .or else. 

A fractionalized past.  An in-doubt present. No set-in-stone plans and no immediate future.  Just exist, and look for a new place to plant roots. 

That’s kind of how Nguyen eventually ended up at Western Michigan University as a double major in aviation flight science and aviation management and operations.  She never featured a rock-centered eye on an aviation career — just an awareness that something had to, or was going to, happen. 

And it did.  And while where it is happening is not as long a journey — from Southeast Asia to Kent, Wash., where her parents eventually settled — the distance from the Pacific Northwest to Kalamazoo, Mich., isn’t a simple walk around the block. 

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Nguyen and her family at the Christmas lights in Everett, Wash. (Sister: Jessica, Mom: Van Thanh, Dad: Hai, and Jennifer)

Another amazing facet of her story is — what would have happened to Nguyen if she had done what a lot of us do — trash an e-mail without opening it up.  More about that later. 

Now a junior in the College of Aviation, Nguyen grew up in a 136,000-strong community that is part of the Seattle-Tacoma metroplex in King County in the northwest sector of the state. 

“My grandfather, Canh Tran, was a fighter pilot in the South Vietnam Air Force working with the United States during the Vietnam War,” she says.  “My family and relatives immigrated to the United States in the 1990s and 2000s. 

“My father, Hai Nguyen, and my uncles had dreams of being pilots when they were younger,” she says, “but were forced to put their ambitions behind them.  Due to the reality of coming to America for its opportunities and the shared hope of creating better lives for themselves and their families, they scrambled to find work, eventually with Boeing.” 

Nguyen and WMU members of the Latino Pilots Association - WMU chapter during a tour of the United Airlines Network Operations Center

Nguyen, with a grandfather pilot and her folks working for Boeing, early on still answered “software engineer” when asked about her career plans — a pretty-good gig.  “But, after researching that pathway and taking some classes,” she says, “I realized that I had no passion for that.  I had always found flying to be an appealing dream that I did not allow myself to chase.” 

Because she was dual enrolled at Kentridge High School and Green River College, her K-12 diploma, and an associate-of-arts degree came at the same time in June of 2023. 

“I didn’t allow myself to explore aviation as a career in high school,” she says, “because I had a major fear of failing,” a sensation that her grandparents might have felt as they pondered what to do after their nation’s war-torn years.   That began to change when Nguyen took a discovery flight in September of her senior year in 2022. 

Nguyen during her graduation from Green River College with highest honors and an Associate in Arts

While she sampled what a career in the skies might feel like at the region’s Museum of Flight, she first decided to focus on earning her associate’s degree.  “I was afraid and a bit intimidated to fully stick to making aviation my education focus,” she says, “because I didn’t think it was a viable option for me.” 

That started to crystalize when, as a senior at Kentridge, she became a student member of Women in Aviation International and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.”  Next came a course in aviation history and careers at Green River. 

Then came an internship at the Port of Seattle.  She remembers walking on one of the runways with fellow interns “where I was able to watch a bunch of planes taking off over me.  Though I was just an intern who was there to pick up litter, it was cool to be close to planes taking off and landing.”  In other words, this could be “cool” and far more exciting than designing software.  Plus, she did much more than pick up litter during that internship. 

Taking a break to watch airplanes during her volunteering experience at the SeaTac airport removing FOD (foreign object debris)

“I think I realized that life was too short not to take a shot at something I once thought was unattainable,” she says.  “I didn’t see many Asian women pursuing a career as a pilot.  Most of my friends were interested in engineering or the medical field.  They wanted to attend the same university near home.  I too wanted to hold on to what was comfortable.” 

The metamorphosis was almost complete.  “I wanted to chase my passion and if that meant moving across the country from family and friends, so be it,” Nguyen says.  “Again, you may only get one shot in life.” 

Even though she never really said it out loud, that shot was to become a pilot.  Which led to enrolling in aviation-related courses, that discovery flight, and the early stages of flight training.  The yearning-for-more seed was planted. 

Still there was a bit of reticence.  Should she play it safe and stay home?  That was the comfortable thing to do, even if it meant a less-than-inspiring career.  Her research led to gathering information about the WMU College of Aviation and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where she was accepted for admission. 

As part of her introduction to what Western had to offer, she learned about the Medallion program, one of the largest merit-based scholarship opportunities in the nation that could be valued at as much as $91,100 over a four-year period.  Plus, Western had a vibrant collection of RSOs (registered student organizations) that could provide “a sense of community” for her.  Nguyen would eventually learn that the College of Aviation itself is a valued community for students. 

Fellow Medallion recipient, Makenzie Russel and Nguyen during a Lee Honors practice event, where they demonstrate clean energy using a bike generator to power a smoothie machine

But all of this was still up in the air. . .until fate intervened. 

“When I got an e-mail from the Lee Honors College to schedule an interview for the Medallion Scholarship,” she says, “I initially ignored it because I thought it was a scam.  Fortunately, it was followed by a second e-mail, which I did open, and I decided to take a chance.  I bragged to my parents about getting interviewed for a scholarship, but I never thought I would be offered one.” 

The Nguyen Sisters, Jessica and Jennifer, at the famous Seattle Pike Place Market

That development came her way while Nguyen was volunteering at a free outdoor grocery market.  “I received a call from a strange number,” she says, “and didn’t pick it up.  The voicemail was from a Western representative that said I had received the scholarship.  I was just dumbfounded.  To this day, it is still crazy to me that if I had not replied to that e-mail, my life’s trajectory would be completely different.” 

That trajectory has brought Nguyen to feel at home and welcomed.”  And this comes from a person who “used to keep to myself most of the time.” 

The connectivity evolves from her membership and leadership roles in Western’s chapters of Women in Aviation, the Professional Asian Pilots Association, and Sigma Psi Zeta, a services-oriented sorority for students of her heritage.  Her extra-curricular activities are all part of Nguyen pushing herself out of her “comfort zones.” 

Her sought-after “accomplishment” zones are earning the necessary certificates, licenses and hours in the air to become a certified flight instructor for Western and eventually moving up the line to serve as a pilot for Delta Air Lines. 

Not bad for a never-wanna-be software engineer.