A Passion for Equal Access

May 14, 2010 — Growing up in Fairfax County, Mary Nguyen attended high school with many students who never had to worry whether their families could afford to send them to the colleges of their choice. But for Nguyen's family, which emigrated from Vietnam a quarter-century ago, resources were limited.

"Northern Virginia is a pretty wealthy area, but there are a lot of low-income students there who are often unnoticed," Nguyen said. "A lot of students don't even consider college because they don't think they can afford it."

Thanks to the University of Virginia's AccessUVa financial aid program, Nguyen was able to have the college experience she had dreamt of as a child. On May 23, she will receive degrees in biology and linguistics.

At first she was certain that a pre-med track was the way to go. But as is often the case with early college plans, she discovered that her interests lay elsewhere.

"I think I came in being really shy and not knowing what I was passionate about," she said. "Even though I was a biology and linguistics major, I became more interested in programs that were social policy-based."

Nguyen began working with the AP Challenge Program, a Department of Education-funded program in the Curry School of Education. Developed in conjunction with Virginia Beach City Public Schools, the program seeks to address the gap in Advanced Placement participation and exam performance between minority and low-income students and their non-minority peers. The program focuses on improving AP scores and encouraging low-income and minority students' college aspirations.

"Mary's work on the AP Challenge project was a blend of her passion for ensuring equal opportunities for students from all groups and her strengths and goals as a student researcher," said Carolyn Callahan, Commonwealth Professor of Education, and the project's principal investigator. "She was a spark to our team – always prodding us to act and respond as she completed her work."

Remaining grateful for their U.Va. experiences, Nguyen and four other students worked to see that other undergraduate students received the same opportunities they did. In 2008, they formed a contracted independent organization, or CIO as it's known around Grounds, to support current students and spread the word that AccessUVa is available to help students pay for school and graduate without crippling debt.

In its first year, 'Hoos for Open Access hosted social gatherings for current students and presented a successful financial literacy workshop. Members also traveled to their former high schools to promote the affordability of higher education via AccessUVa. One member created a searchable database of scholarship opportunities available to low-income students.

Beyond those first steps, Nguyen and other Hoos for Open Access students have urged donors to designate gifts for AccessUVa scholarships.

"We want to make sure that the money is always there," she said, "because it helps so many students."

In addition, Nguyen enlisted students receiving aid to write special thank-you notes to donors, an initiative that she said has enjoyed great success.

Nguyen credits her behind-the-scenes involvement with AccessUVa with sparking an academic interest in education and public policy. In the fall, she will pursue her master's in public policy at Johns Hopkins' Institute for Policy Studies.

"I'll really focus on research, and eventually work for a government agency or a think tank," she said. "Anything related to higher education."

— By Linda Kobert and William Cocke