Sometimes conducting an interview takes lots of questions. Simple questions, roundabout questions, questions posed as comments, comments posed as questions, and, very often, re-phrasing the same question as many ways as I possibly can. The net effect is akin to fishing with different bait each time I cast a line, all in an effort to hook and reel an answer. But I had no such issues with Natalie Tran, former Coastline student, current California State University, Fullerton, student, and future California State University, Long Beach, student.
Natalie jumped right in, offering a whirlwind of facts: her family is from Vietnam; she immigrated with her parents to the United States when she was five. She was keen on environmental science in high school, then on veterinary science, calling each “flings.” Her intense passion for both burned bright, but didn’t last.
After serving as President of Coastline’s Associated Student Government in her second year of college, and after conversations with some of Coastline’s administrators and staff, whom she considers family, Natalie knew what she wanted to do, how she wanted to spend her career, by working on behalf of students at community colleges and in higher education. She told her dad that if he were to find her “bawling after [her] work one day,” then it would mean that she had helped her first student “realize their potential.”
Education, especially higher education, means a lot to Natalie, and means perhaps more to her family. The person she is closest to, her great-grandmother, always spoke or introduced Natalie as “a future college graduate” and education was referenced constantly during Natalie’s childhood. Natalie’s parents, who never went to high school, immigrated to the United States with Natalie precisely for the educational opportunities. As a result, when she graduates from Cal State Fullerton in May, she will be the first generation in her family ever to graduate from college. Just by graduating with her Associate from Coastline, Natalie is breaking new ground.
It was a lot of pressure at first: “College is scary, life is scary, but it’s even scarier when your parents have never been through it.” I think the average freshman spends a lot of time wide-eyed and open-mouthed, both at the possibility and responsibility of college. The effect was heightened for Natalie because there was no one in her family who knew what the experience of applying or starting was like. Starting from scratch, she was, and is, like an explorer, bound for the orbital foreign moons that are college campuses.
Staff and Student Workers at the EOPS Holiday Party. Courtesy of Natalie Tran.
That was part of why she picked Coastline, a community college, to begin her journey. She could have attended another school in the district, like Orange Coast, but most of the people she went to high school with were picking Orange Coast, and, like any intrepid adventurer, she wanted to break new ground, find her own path, and, you know, meet new people. At the time, she dealt with tremendous imposter syndrome, feeling out of place in every college class, though she didn’t realize that’s what it was until her Extended Opportunity Programs & Services (EOPS) counselor, Claudia Mojica, pointed it out. The folks at EOPS became a family for Natalie and she worked there throughout her time at Coastline, advising other wide-eyed, opened-mouthed students on their assignments, their courses, and more.
Now, Natalie sees the imposter syndrome as a mixed blessing; while it caused a lot of pain and anguish, she also knows that when she feels imposter syndrome kicking in, it means she has an opportunity to learn more. Dr. Schonfeld, Dean of Students at Coastline, who Natalie considers a mentor, told Natalie that when she taught her first class as a professor her hands were shaking. It made Natalie realize that she wasn’t alone in her fears.
When talking about Coastline Natalie gushes. Throughout our conversation she said “we” when referring to Coastline and its denizens, even though she is no longer a student there. It was clear how much the school meant to her and the tightknit family she developed. She brought up multiple names, and wanted to make sure I knew them, in case it came up for this article. I assured I would do my best to include them, so here goes: the aforementioned Claudia Mojica and Dr. Schonfeld, Dr. Paolo Varquez at the Career Center, Tina Xa and Mindy Le at EOPS, and Kasie Hipp, who was Natalie’s ASG advisor before Dr. Schonfeld. There were others, Natalie said, but she couldn’t name them all off the top of her head.
Because of her desire to help other students and experience as a first generation student, Natalie has become something of an expert on the college process, and she peppered advice throughout our conversation: “Seek out opportunities,” because college is full of them. “Don’t be afraid of challenges because challenges will lead to growth.” “Find at least five people at the college,” spread around different areas (staff, faculty, peer, etc.) that you can turn to for help and support. “Talk to professors with an open door policy” because that’s why they told you they have an open door policy to begin with.
Natalie wants to dedicate her life helping other people achieve their educational goals. She knows, better than most, the difficulties around college. Toward the end of our call Natalie summed it up nicely: “The hardest part of college isn’t the classes, it’s everything else.”
Currently, Natalie is an Undergraduate Research Assistant at the Center for Research in Educational Access and Leadership, which, she tells me, everyone shortens to C-REAL (I certainly hope so). After she wraps up her undergraduate work she’ll start a Masters in Counseling at California State University, Long Beach, continuing down the path of higher education her family began long ago, even before Natalie and her parents immigrated. She recognized that her journey, and by extension her family’s, has “almost come full circle.” When that happens, she’ll do exactly what she set out to do: help other students so that their journey will come full circle too.