Stanford: My experience Part 1

Sunset Across Campus Drive West at Stanford

Sunset Across Campus Drive West at Stanford

If I tell you that I went to Stanford, I inevitably get the same question – “What was it like?” At times it feels so long ago, thus I’ve decided to write some thoughts down. Sorry if this post gets a bit long.

Honestly, what is Stanford like? That’s one of the hardest questions to answer, because the Stanford experience was so many things. Stanford isn’t just preparing yourself for your adult life, it’s also about being young. For me it was my first time away from home, mostly on my own. I spent 5 years at Stanford. I finished my both my bachelor and master degree in those 5 years. Many people find that their time in university to be one of their most formative years, the most intense years, the most memorable years. I also have tons of stories I could tell about my Stanford experience. However, lets begin with some generalizations.

Going to a school like Stanford with successful driven people, you begin to understand that everyone has their own experience with Stanford, none of which reflects the value of your experience. It’s very easy to get caught up with comparisons in a such competitive environment, but at the same time that competition is in itself also valuable. It pushes you and at forces you to confront your inadequacies. If you use it correctly it forges a hardiness in dealing with life in general. You learn breaking points, how it is useless to put on a fake image of success when you’re struggling to keep afloat, and most importantly how you can rely on yourself and others.

This school is very much a central communal bubble. The well-known “Stanford bubble” definitely exists. Part of it is physical. Stanford is the second largest campus land area wise in the world and largest in the US. Sure, there are tons of off campus getaways, but the majority of action occurs on campus. There are large dorms, but also row or small group houses, and apartments. The row houses are typically themed houses (language or academic themes) co-ops, self-ops, or Greek houses. Undergraduates are guaranteed four years of housing. A majority take advantage of that fact. Unlike colleges in big urban cities, nightlife occurs on campus a great deal more.

Part of this bubble is the assumed prestige. Outsiders treat Stanford students a bit different. Whether this is real or perceived, being in any prestigious community carries weight. This affects both those in and those out of the group (As a medical student, I’m seeing this in a whole new light). Having a Stanford email address allows you privileges. You can contact a Nobel Prize winner to answer a quick question and stretch your wings toward countless opportunity. In essence the alumni experience in combination with the time you spend at Stanford in combination is that much more powerful. Many people like me move onto further education and continue various academic pursuits or professional careers. Having that connection to a fantastic network is priceless. Yet at the same time makes me wonder about equal opportunity.

Another part of the insularity also stems from the psychological perceptions of academic pressures, extracurriculars, daily activities, and all the other stressors of life. This personal bubble exists within the larger bubble that everyone at Stanford sees.

Despite being unified by the insularity I mentioned above, the campus is also very much a microcosm of the greatest variety of societal in-groups. In probably no other place will you have such close connections with people outside of your “normal” life sphere. As a graduate from Stanford, I learned about the extreme value of diversity and why having interactions outside your comfort zone means so much for personal growth. It’s something best experienced firsthand.

I’ve spoken a bit about a few cultural aspects from my personal perspective. I’m sure people are curious about other things. The academics, daily student life etc. This may be of most use to high school students and parents, but I’m going to try to share personal impressions and experiences rather than “pamphlet-y” as possible in part 2 of my Stanford experience.


Hiking Alone


During my sister’s wedding weekend I took a very lonesome ~ 2 hour hike and promised to share more about it here. This hike was the loop at Pine Valley Park that connects to trails at Pike National Forest. Halfway up a hill and halfway down. I had already done the loop around the lake at Pine Valley Park. We had been one of the first folks to arrive at the park for the picnic (see prior post). I had been to other Jeffco Open Spaces and was excited to see what this particular park held. Part of the South Platte River ran through Pine Valley Park and the lake were definitely scenic. However, I love the challenge of going up to reach a summit especially on winding trails where you see lesser touched parts of nature. Thus, the decision to embark on this longer hike. It’s always a thrill to be at any peak looking out at the world spread out in front of you.

Continue reading

My Little Sister’s Wedding

Congratulations Mark and Thienbao!

It’s been planned for a long time, and now we’ve finally here. My sister’s married and I have a new brother. Congratulations and best wishes to Thienbao and Mark!

This was meant to be a quick post and has ended up being quite long. It’s all from my own perspective of the wedding. I wanted to immediately put thoughts down so I don’t forget something I may want to say now. Also for posterity sake so I don’t forget things when I look back at this time in the future. But most importantly to share all my love for Mark and Thienbao. Hopefully you get something out of this too. I know the day must have gone by in a blur for you guys.

Continue reading

Lessons from a Grassroots Canvasser



Back in high school I worked for Colorado Citizens Campaign (CCC), a nonprofit that ran a “Good Neighbor Campaign” focused on the CEMEX cement plant in Lyons, Colorado. Our issue with CEMEX was its environmental impact on the community. CEMEX had multiple neighborhood complaints and EPA violations. Our mission was to activate Colorado citizens to pressure plant managers to make changes. Each afternoon we would gather in the office, pile into a large van, and set out to a different neighborhood in Colorado. We would spend the rest of the evening educating folks about our cause, collecting signatures, and asking for monetary contributions. I was the prototypical canvasser for any grassroots cause. We literally went door to door with a clipboard and backpack. CCC no longer exists, and I’ve not really heard or been able to find any results from our efforts.

Back then I honestly cared more about the experience and compensation. I believed in the message, and cared about the environment. Yet, I had no direct experience with the travesties experienced by the folks living nearby the CEMEX plant. Hearing stories of burning tires, and the statistics on EPA violations was indeed shocking and helped me to rationalize meaning in my work. Yet, I didn’t care how I contributed to making a difference. I only cared that I was helping and that by doing so I was making some extra cash.

Nevertheless, I did learn some important life lessons.

I learned of the generosity of people. As a canvasser, ringing a stranger’s doorbell and sharing a story for a few minutes, I was able to get a guy to give me a $320 check, and multiple people trust me with their credit card number. Many days I had at least a contribution from a donor of $50+ (sometimes multiple).

I learned how to quickly build rapport and sell something. To get donations from a stranger, you sell a convincing message. However, just as important as the message is the tone in which it is delivered. Scripting the framework of a conversation is important, but you should never script the conversation itself. You always need to mirror the person.

Reading people is important. Are they going to be receptive to my message? Customer service folks should listen up. I think there is value in pushing, but please don’t annoy people with your persistence when they are not receptive. There’s a fine line there. Instead of staying to convince someone, I was encouraged to move on to the next potential donor. Quantity is valued over quality in selling something.

People who weren’t interested either quickly declined or did not answer the door. There was only two bad experiences that I could remember. Fewer than I expected.

When someone is home alone, they are more likely to donate. They feel independence in their decisions without having to justify the expense to a significant other or family member inside the house.

Walking up to a person’s front door, you notice many things. You’re on the threshold of a personal space. You notice the wealth, the value someone gives to appearances, the quirks, their value of privacy, and so many other things.

I also learned how people do segregate themselves based on ideology to a much larger degree than you might expect. Neighbors are much more like minded than you may think. I always knew the neighborhoods we visited were carefully coordinated and planned based on past experience. We visited the Boulder area quite a bit. Boulder folks obviously cared about the environment, are open minded and generous. I could tell right away how successful the day might be based on the reception I had in the first few houses of the afternoon.

Environmentalists are a unique breed. I worked with true hippies. I was first offered weed working with these folks (I refused). Their political views were obvious. Back then I remember discussions about nuclear power and John Edwards presidential candidacy for 2008 (before his fall from grace).

Working on commission (partly true at CCC) or getting compensated based on the contributions we could gather is not a good a motivator. At least for me, I worked just as hard using all my skills even if my day started out well. On bad days, I didn’t change my approach. I think commission work often breeds bad practices and use of shortcuts. It focuses too much on the money side of things rather than the message we want to deliver. This is an absolute feeling where I’m sure nuances and exceptions exists.

I said before I didn’t care how I made a difference. In all honesty, I really don’t think my work was so impactful. Our focus on quantity over quality was more efficient and profitable. However, I doubt any “good neighbors” followed up on their contributions and we made some incremental changes, but as a nonprofit, I’m sure were expected to achieve loftier goals. Its definitely hard to create passion and move people to forge lasting change by asking them for a signature or for a one time contribution.

Reading for Pleasure

Statue at Ketring Park

Statue at Ketring Park

I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve been updating my blog with weekly book reviews. I’d like to take a break and discuss a few of the reasons for my renewed interest in reading. Growing up, reading occupied a large chunk of my free time. Back then, I read for pleasure much more than I do now. Until recently, I rarely gave a book the chance to draw me in and absorb my attention. I recently have begun to change that habit. I’d like to explain a few reasons for this change.

Continue reading

Personal Genetic Testing: Part II – Ancestry

Part II – Ancestry


I grew up very much separated from my ancestors. My parents were immigrants from Vietnam and I was born in the United States. As many first generation Americans/second generation Asian-Americans can attest, you are assimilated into the culture in which you are born and often struggle to hold onto the identity passed down from your parents. When I sent in my DNA to get tested, I knew I would get some ancestry information, but brushed that off as an interesting and fun novelty to the 23andMe testing services. I had always thought the health information would be much more informative and interesting.

Continue reading

Personal Genetic Testing: Part I – Taking the Plunge

Part I – Taking the Plunge


The plunge – Thienan Nguyen

Personal health tracking or “the quantified self” movement has been steadily growing in popularity for decades. With today’s technology, people are granted an unprecedented level of of control over collecting and analyzing personal health data in order to make informed lifestyle decisions. Among people with chronic health issues, and those interested in health improvement, one can attempt to utilize all this personal health information to attempt to “debug” health situations. From wearable sensors to phone apps to collect and display information, self-tracking of health information has become trendy and mainstream and easier than ever. Personal genetic testing is one among the many ways to perform this self quantification. I took part in personal genetic testing a few years ago and would like to share the experience. In this blog post, part I of V, I talk about taking the plunge and undergoing genetic testing.

Continue reading

Interests: Variety is the Spice of Life


(n) the state of wanting to know or learn about something or someone. (v) excite the curiosity or attention of (someone)


I rarely remember my aspirations from my earlier years. One wild dream I had, was to be a professional curler. One main reason was reading the following quote.

Curling is mesmerizing for one reason: its simplicity. Chess on ice is the usual comparison, but it may be even simpler than the endless variations and gambits of Kasparov’s game. Leaning out on the hack and staring down the ice, curling engages the game-playing brain at its most basic and addictive of levels. Put this there; leave space here; completely screw over opponent. Like the best games, it is a true zero-sum game, but unlike chess involves the body, a kind of meditative rock-toss you do over and over again until you’re in the wordless space Zen Buddhist monks are always blabbing on and on about.  The ice helps: there’s blank whiteness, a few lines, and everything else evaporates away. – Spencer Hall (2010).

I remember reading this many years ago and thinking about how simple curling seemed, but how consuming it could be, how something like curling could be an escape, a passion, but also a challenge to overcome.

Continue reading


view from monarch mountain

View from Monarch Mountain by Thienan Nguyen

This writing project is quite an ambitious one. Ambition can be dangerous, but should it ever be bridled? Today I met a woman while in weight management clinic who had underwent bariatric bypass surgery this year and so far had lost around 30 lbs or 13% of her weight in 3.5 months. For those of you familiar with weight loss,  this is a wild success. In her mind she wanted to get down to her “high school weight” (125 lbs). An unrealistic goal in my mind.

She was dismayed during our office visit and wanted to discuss a long-term goal for her weight management. She had undergone bariatric surgery, was on appetite suppressant medications, working with a dietician on an intensive behavioral modification plan with diet and physical activity yet still was feeling depress because she still saw herself as “fat” when she looked in the mirror. These were very legitimate feelings. Did we discourage her and told her that she may never get down to her high school weight. Not at all, we continued to focus on the success so far, our patients current health situation and on taking things one step at a time.

Thinking about this patient I was reminded of my own ambitious project. Compared to my patient’s project, my writing project pales in comparison in terms of the dedication required. Changing habits is one of the toughest things we do, our brains work on familiar patterns. My patient needed to make drastic lifestyle and behavioral changes. I’m only attempting a habit that might take an hour or two (at most) each time I sit to write on this blog. It really humbles me sometimes realizing the little things I’m doing to grow as person compared to the drastic dedication others require to get to similar circumstances.

Last time I talked about intellectual vitality. Ambitious people have an element of that – a  spark that one can sense when an ambitious person is discussing their ambition. Those that are ambitious see a current life trajectory, compared it to an alternative they find more appealing and then dedicate their efforts to pursuing that dream or goal. Like I mentioned at the beginning, my patient’s goal seemed unrealistic. But who am I to say she won’t succeed? Would I rather be in a community filled with talented people but who squander their opportunities due to lack of ambition, or those that are presented struggles and work towards overcoming those obstacles with ambition. My patient was given and continues to receive all the opportunities to succeed. She is grabbing and clawing down the path towards the target of her ambition – both a healthy body and a healthy body image. I wish her the best of luck!

An Introduction


View from Hopkins Marine Station by Thienan

Blog Introduction

On my first post I’d like to begin with an introduction. It outlines the purpose and content of the blog.

As for the topic – most successful blogs have a topic. That is hard to decide. Instead of random “interesting” postings I see this as a memoir of sorts. A turning of my life into literature. It will definitely end up being topic-less generally, and seemingly random, but unlike instagram/tumblr posts I want each post to have a bit more meaning. I do enjoy seeing the interesting video, picture, etc, but as a written blog named, “thienanwrites” I am striving for a bit more writing. To answer the question, the topic is my life and the things I decide to write about. Flashbacks may be warranted, but I am deciding to this now and generally will be writing about what I find fit to write about during my day.

As I write I want to see improvement. Thus in this post I want to outline my 3 areas of critique. This is an informal grading system and I must admit I stole these 3 areas from an interview criteria.

1. Intellectual Vitality

Yes, lets leave it at that. I may make a future post on what I mean by that, but I feel its more tangibly grasped through experiences of the display of this concept rather than explained. Especially since I’m only starting out, I feel I want to reserve this for a future date when I have more experience with written communication.

2. Depth/Commitment

As I have mentioned, this will be an ongoing project. One that I plan on committing towards. Not only as a means of self improvement, but also as an outlet for self expression. By making this commitment I hope to explore topics deeply. Many things on the internet are very superficial. I want this blog to be tied together. Thus, my first idea is to include an image I’ve taken in each blog post both as an interesting addition, but as means to increase my grade on the next item.

3. Character/Self-Presentation

I think as a public outlet for self expression, I want to continually present a good impression. I know there will be readers who disagree or those that might not read at all due to lack of attractive qualities. Thus beyond the content of these posts, I think that being confident enough and having the character to put out something of which I would be proud remains a large goal. I originally thought to leave the first post picture-less, but that may be a bit boring.