Andrew Tran didn't know English when he emigrated to the United States at age 14.
Andrew Tran didn't know English when he emigrated to the United States at age 14.
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#UMMCGrad18: Dental student defies language barrier to become scholar

Published on Thursday, May 24, 2018

By: Alana Bowman

Below average. That’s how Andrew Tran described his teenage self, back in high school.

“I made B’s and C’s at best,” Tran said. “I didn’t think I was capable, but I was just lazy.”

It’s hard to reconcile that picture with the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry student who scored a 24 on the DAT, the standard dental admissions test. For comparison, students entering Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 2016 had an average DAT score of 23.5.

“Andrew Tran has clearly ‘set the bar’ in achieving clinical experiences at the School of Dentistry,” said Dr. David Felton, dean of the dental school, which is located on the Jackson campus of the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “He is in all respects the ‘whole package,’ and we are certainly proud to call him a UMMC alumnus.”

What turned this average student into an overachiever? Tran said moving to a new country as a sophomore played a huge role in his scholarly transformation.

Tran grew up in Truong Yen, a farming village nested among limestone mountains and meandering waterways in the Ninh Binh province of Vietnam. It’s the site of the ancient capital of Hao Lu, home to the first Dinh Emperor at the end of the 10th century. Tran said that the area has become a popular tourism attraction because the king once lived there.

Andrew Tran with his mother, Mary Duong, at the School of Dentistry Senior Honors Banquet.
Andrew Tran poses with his mother, Mary Duong, at the School of Dentistry Senior Honors Banquet.

He described his family as middle class. His mother, Mary Duong, was a seamstress with her own shop, and his father helped out in the family business.

“We didn't have air conditioning or our own bathroom, but we had food on the table,” he said. He was aware of the poverty around him, but his family was “fortunate enough to have food every day.”

When Tran was 9, business lagged at his mom’s shop, and she took a job in American Samoa. The company she worked for filed bankruptcy shortly after she arrived. They gave her the choice to either return home to Vietnam or receive a visa to the United States. Hoping to make a better life for her children, Duong decided to move to Biloxi rather than return to Truong Yen. Tran was separated from his mother for the next six years.

“She started going door to door asking people if they needed help, looking for work” he said. Finding a job was difficult because she didn’t speak English very well, but Duong eventually met a woman who needed a seamstress for her custom curtain business in Hattiesburg. After her day job, Duong would spend evenings at a friend’s nail salon learning to do nails and studying English.

When Tran joined her years later, he started high school over again at Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg in order to allow for more time to learn English.

“It was kind of tough being thrown straight into high school and not knowing any words,” he said. “I remember the first class they put me in was biology. I just had no idea what was going on in there.” Tran said that the other students called him stupid, among other names.

“My mind-set kind of changed when I came over here,” Tran said. “I didn't speak English and didn't know anyone, so I stayed at home and studied a lot.” It took about six months to learn the language. His new study skills paid off.

“I started making A’s, which I had never done in Vietnam. I felt good about myself, so I kept studying and kept making A’s. It got me excited.”

Tran’s interest in dentistry developed during this time. There was no dentist in his village, not for miles. Extraction was his only dental experience, and he wondered how westerners on television had such perfect teeth.

“When I came here, I saw a lot of my classmates in high school wearing braces,” Tran said. “I had no idea what they were. It just kind of amazed me how you can move teeth around and make such huge differences.”

Wanting braces to correct his own teeth, Tran started working after school and on weekends at a nail salon owned by one of his mother’s friends, cleaning the pedicure chairs.

“I was a receptionist when my English got a little bit better,” he said. “From that money, I got my braces.” After high school, he attended cosmetology school so that he could work as a nail technician, which he did for a year before entering the University of Southern Mississippi to earn his Bachelor of Science in biology with a minor in chemistry.

Although he considered careers in medicine and pharmacy, Tran had made up his mind by college that he wanted to be a dentist, partly because of the hand skills he acquired working as a nail tech. “It helped my dexterity a lot,” he said. “When I got into dental school it was natural.” The tools and materials used in sculpting acrylic nails are much like those used in dentistry.

“I loved the fact that I got to work with my hands, but I felt like I could do more,” he said. “Dentistry is very similar to what I was doing, but the hours are better, and you are much better respected. There is a lot of drama in a nail salon.”

He had the “best time of his life” in dental school, Tran said. “I've had a great experience here.”

During his first year in dental school, Tran and his mother drove to New Orleans for their citizenship ceremony.

“I remember we had this huge test coming up,” he said. “I was studying in the car, and my mom was driving. I made it here just in time for the test at 1 o'clock.” As he walked in for the test, he announced, “I am now a U.S. citizen!” and the class cheered. “That was a great moment.”

Felton said that Tran has continued to treat patients up to commencement and has also assisted his classmates with their patient care. “His work ethic, attention to detail and ability to provide exceptional patient care has been outstanding,” Felton said.

Tran credits his mom for his drive and work ethic. Working 12-hour days, seven days a week, is common for Duong. Monday through Saturday, when she is not working in the nail salon she now owns, she’s making alterations to clothing until late in the night. On Sundays, she provides microblading services to her customers.

“I think she just enjoys it,” Tran said. “That's just who she is. She is a great woman. She is my inspiration.”