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Unafraid to engage: ‘Third culture kid’ Tuyen Truong grows from curious student to researcher, Army lieutenant

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Recent alumna Tuyen Truong, left, talks with Jeannette Rogers at the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies graduation in May 2015. Photos by Marc Hall.

Amid a crowd of more than 100 people, Tuyen Truong stood up to ask a question.

It was the fall of 2012, and Truong — then a young ROTC cadet at NC State — had just listened to a panel of veterans discuss the challenges of adjusting to civilian life. The panelists, speaking during a “Finding Peace” forum at the university, talked openly about the physical and emotional toll of war.

As a student who hoped to enter the military, Truong voiced her concern: How was she supposed to reconcile what they were saying, knowing she, too, could face the same struggles?

Seth Murray, an international studies professor who attended the forum, remembers Truong’s question well. “It was a moment where there were clearly a lot of personal situations at stake, but she was showing her intellectual desire to engage,” Murray said.

During the next few years, Truong’s curiosities led her much further, as she pursued a degree in international studies and continued to confront and explore new ideas. It was that curiosity that inspired award-winning research during her senior year and now, after graduating summa cum laude in May, a career in the U.S. Army.

“That’s what we want to see in our students at NC State: To come up with meaningful questions and spend some time figuring out answers to those questions,” Murray said.

The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Truong was raised in the United States, where she has been challenged to figure out societal quirks since she was a child.

She was born in a refugee camp in the Philippines, and when she was a baby, her family flew with several other hopeful refugees to Binghamton, New York.

From early childhood, Truong said, she grew up as a “third culture kid,” balancing customs and values she learned from her family’s cultural roots with American traditions.

Tuyen Truong with her family.

Tuyen Truong, center, stands with members of her family after her graduation ceremony in May 2015.

That dynamic created challenges at times and required Truong to take on tasks that would be unusual for many teens. She learned to read her family’s tax forms, for instance, and when applying to NC State, looked into student aid and college loans on her own.

After being accepted to the university, Truong said she refused to view her background as a burden, but rather as an opportunity to succeed — an opportunity her parents afforded her by coming to the United States. The second in her family to go to college, Truong attended NC State with support from Pack Promise, a scholarship program for students with financial needs.

“It intrigues me how differently you can be raised, even from one house to the next in a  neighborhood,” Truong said. “I love that each culture has its own core of ideals and morals and how that drives a person’s growth, even if you grow up in a country different from your own. I got the best of both cultures. Both the American and Vietnamese cultures influenced my growth.”

Military-related research

Truong put her mind to work when she embarked on a military study for her senior international studies capstone project: “Allergic to Change: Female Soldiers and the Right to Serve in Combat.”

Through her research, she found that the evolution of warfare and “disappearing front lines” requires the military to redefine combat and the role of female soldiers. Her poster won top honors at the 2015 NC State Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Interdisciplinary studies professor Carol Ann Lewald, Truong’s senior thesis adviser, said Truong began her research with the premise that women should not serve in combat roles. However, as she looked closer at the issue, she realized that was a gender-based assumption, Lewald said.

“She started to play with things on both sides and explore it, which is not an easy process,” Lewald said.

Truong, who left NC State as a Distinguished Military Graduate, is already putting what she learned to good use as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. She was commissioned just before she graduated in May.

Lewald said Truong’s educational journey at NC State was aided by her openness to new ideas.

Tuyen Truong at graduation.

Tuyen Truong speaks to her fellow graduates during the Interdisciplinary Studies program graduation in May 2015.

“Part of the way we help is by giving students the space to engage with material without passing judgment,” Lewald said. “Rather than telling them, ‘These are the ideas and this is how you have to understand them,’ we try to provide the space that allows them to figure out where they stand in relation to those ideas. She really does embody that; she embodies what we want our students to do.”

Truong earned the honor to serve as the student speaker at the Interdisciplinary Studies graduation in May 2015. During her emotional speech, she thanked her mother, father and siblings — for whom her speech was a complete surprise — for their support. She also thanked what she fondly called her NC State family.

“Four years ago I stepped foot onto this massive brick campus as a 5-foot-1, wide-eyed, anxious freshman,” Truong said. “Today I leave this campus — still, unfortunately, 5-foot-1 — but with a little bit more knowledge and a lot more debt. All joking aside, it’s honestly been a fulfilling journey.”

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