Editor’s Note: Earlier versions of this article appeared in our print magazine, Accolades, and online.
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 hardships 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 when 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. That curiosity inspired her to do award-winning research during her senior year and then, after graduating summa cum laude in May, to pursue 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. 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 she applied to NC State, she looked into student aid and college loans on her own.
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.
— Seth Murray, teaching associate professor of international studies
After being accepted to NC State, Truong said she refused to view her background as a burden, seeing it 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 need.
“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.”
Research that matters
Truong put her curiosity to work when she embarked on a military study for her senior international studies capstone project, titled “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” required 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 at the issue more closely, 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. “Part of the way we help is by giving students the space to engage with material without passing judgment.”
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 2015.
At graduation, Truong earned the honor to serve as the student speaker at the Interdisciplinary Studies May 2015 commencement ceremony. 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.”