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TJ Nguyen

Senior, mechanical engineering
Samuel Ginn College of Engineering

Thanh "TJ" Nguyen, a senior in mechanical engineering, is the 2013 recipient of the Auburn University Student Employee of the Year award, the regional Student Employee of the Year Award, given by the Southern Association of Student Employment Administrators, as well as the national Student Employee of the Year Award, given by the National Student Employment Association. This is the first time a student employee from Auburn has won all three awards, and Nguyen was selected from more than 1,500 student workers nationwide. For the past four years, Nguyen has worked with the Department of Outreach in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, and it was Mary Lou Ewald, director of the Department of Outreach for COSAM, who nominated him. She describes Nguyen as dependable and reliable, beyond what one would expect from a busy college student. His responsibilities and accomplishments within the COSAM Department of Outreach include: instructing 15 teachers at a two-day intensive robotics workshop; interacting with and offering technical advice to more than 25 teachers on a daily basis over a six-week period during a robotics program; serving as floor boss and technical director during the War Eagle BEST robotics competition and the South's BEST Robotics Championship; and handling COSAM outreach IT issues. He also learned how to use a new sublimation machine the department received, and he created a user manual from scratch, held a training session with outreach office employees, and took on the responsibility of creating hundreds of award plaques for BEST Robotics competition sites all over the country.

In addition, he is active in the Cupola Engineering Society and serves as the service and outreach chair for the Auburn chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. He actively recruits members of many of the student engineering societies to volunteer for COSAM outreach programs, and has even developed several outreach programs on his own. For example, he started a traveling engineering program and recruited his peers to create interactive engineering exhibits targeted at middle school students. He also developed a "Parents Night Out" program where parents can drop off their children periodically on a Friday or Saturday night, and Nguyen and his college student recruits educationally entertain the students with science and engineering activities. Because he works well with children, Ewald even asked Nguyen to develop a curriculum and teach a new Robotics Academy for middle school students this summer. He also plays a major role in COSAM's six-week Science Matters summer program for elementary students, serving as the lead counselor every afternoon for the extended-day portion of the program.

1. What is the best thing about working in COSAM Outreach and what is the most challenging?

The best thing about working in COSAM Outreach is definitely the days we have programs, especially BEST Robotics. I love the atmosphere of BEST, and getting to watch children become engaged in math and science is the reason all of us in the office go to work.

I'd have to say the most challenging part of working in COSAM Outreach is the program schedule. We have our two biggest events every year right before finals each semester, South's BEST in the fall and AU Explore in the spring. I've worked 40 hours the week before fall finals for the last four years. This past fall was particularly challenging due to scheduling issues, which caused South's BEST to be held on Saturday and Sunday, and finals began Monday.

2. Are there any people in your life who have acted as mentors or role models for you? If so, who, and what lessons have you learned from him/her or them?

One role model in my life has been Dr. Mark Conner, director of the Engineering Academy at Hoover High School. I was a member of his first graduating class of the academy at Hoover, and he showed me the importance of engineering education, the opportunities engineering can provide, and most importantly, that you should go into a career you love. He's one of the most brilliant people I know, and he's dedicated his life to engineering education when he could be making more money doing almost anything else. I also know for a fact that he doesn't regret his decision in the least bit.

My older brother and sister have also been my role models. They were the ones who broke the family mold and showed me that it was okay to pave your own way in life. Many of the decisions I've made may seem unorthodox to a lot of people, like joining the Society for Women Engineers, but because of them, I've learned to be confident about the decisions I make. They have both gone far above and beyond what is required for any older sibling, or parent for that matter, to give me and my little sister every opportunity to be successful.

3. Has the experience of working with COSAM Outreach been rewarding? If so, how?

Rewarding doesn't begin to describe my job. I love my job. I look forward to getting out of class to go into work every day. I love preparing events for children, and one day I hope to become a high school teacher like Dr. Conner, preparing students for the grueling curriculum of math, science and engineering in college, and hopefully instilling the importance of society's need for these fields.

4. Would you recommend to other students that they work during their college career?

I would definitely recommend that students work during their college career. Working teaches things that you can't learn in a classroom, such as how to interact with different types of people and the importance of your individual work representing your entire office, and in many cases for us, our entire university. Mary Lou makes a point to stress how each one of us may be the only person from the university a visitor ever interacts with, and their entire perception of Auburn can be based on that one interaction.

5. Is there anything else you would like to add about your job in COSAM Outreach?

I am the only male in the office with eight women. I have to thank Mary Lou, Erin, Kristen, Amy, Donna, Allison T., Allison H. and Molly for constantly putting up with my shenanigans day in and day out. Having a comfortable work environment is extremely important, and I wouldn't have been able to win this individual award without their support. I think we have more fun than any other office in the country with such things like Boy Band Fridays, where we listen to the Backstreet Boys Pandora station. They'll hate me for mentioning this, but Erin and Kristen both have some killer, although "throwback," dance moves that they'll whip out from time to time. Also, in what other office can you find your boss hula hooping?

Apr. 22, 2013