PhD Commencement Speaker: Thuong Nong, PhD'24

May 20, 2024

Thuong Nong, PhD'24, in graduation cap and gown

Interim Dean Madison, faculty, and staff of the Heller School, proud parents, spouses, partners, children, friends, and fellow graduates. GOOD AFTERNOON! It’s such a wonderful collective energy here and now. I am Thuong Nong and I am truly honored and humbled to speak on behalf of the PhD class of 2024.

Even today, I still ask myself. Is this real, not a dream? It has been a long journey to be here today, both in terms of time and distance. I was born in one of the poorest mountainous villages in Vietnam where we didn’t know that the concept of a doctorate existed. I and my friends had to cross mountains and springs on hot or chilly days with our bare feet and empty stomachs to go to school every day—and by ‘school,’ I mean a small classroom temporarily built with bamboo by villagers. No textbooks, no electricity, and of course no Chromebooks. As children of a minority ethnic group, we started our primary school without knowing Vietnamese, the school’s language.

I left my village at the age of 10 to pursue secondary school and 30 years later I left my country, as a single mom with my daughter, to come to the U.S. during the pandemic to pursue my PhD. My story is just one example of the unique stories we each bring to Heller. Here we are, collectively celebrating our achievements with hearts full of gratitude.  

We are grateful for the challenges that have made us stronger.

We honor the sacrifice and support from our loved ones to fulfill our dreams.

We are grateful because we came to Heller and for all that this experience has brought us. We treasure all of the support, mentorship, and friendships during our study. Everyone we met at Heller is a living model of dedication to supporting students, helping us to thrive.

To my fellow graduates, remember that we wanted to come to Heller not just to be better, but to become stronger in order to support other people’s dreams, and to make this world a more equitable place. We are stronger now, not just with the knowledge and skills gained, but with our community—we are no longer alone; we are Heller. In this divided world, there is so much for us to do. Let’s be ready for our service. In any role, either a peace builder, a researcher, or a health care manager, just work hard, be kind, be determined, be resilient, and simply be Heller. The best is yet to come.

Thanks to our families and friends for being with us today. Thanks to the Heller School for all that you are. Congratulations to all of us! Thank you, or as we say in Vietnamese, xin cam on!