On April 30, 1975, an eventful day in history, Steve Nguyen (7) and his family, boarded a crowded boat for a tiring, journey in search of the shores of the United States.
His dad, a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese army, his mom and eight other siblings spent 23 days at sea and about four months in refugee camps in the Philippines, Guam and Arkansas. They arrived in Houston in September 1975 and became proud US citizens on October 5, 1983.
Growing up, Dr. Nguyen had no idea about optometry. His father took hard-labor jobs to take care of the family in Houston’s blue-collar job market. Most mornings, Dr. Nguyen’s dad woke up at 5 am, tired from the day before, left for work with no complaints and returned late. It made little difference whether you were an officer in the army or not…you do what’s needed to adapt and care for your family.
“It was hard watching my parents struggle, but their struggles inspired me to do something in life and not waste an opportunity. His jobs we physically demanding and the working conditions were difficult. But he understood and accepted why he had to do it…he kept his eye on the ball. .”
His oldest sister and brother delayed college to help provide for the family and the siblings took turns to attend college. “My family did whatever it took to allow us the opportunity to pursue the American Dream.”
Dr. Nguyen first encountered optometry as a work study student at UHCO in the contact lens department. He interacted with students and faculty members and learned a little about the profession. A business major, he had planned to become an accountant, having worked for the IRS before college.
However, an episode of conjunctivitis got him his first interaction with optometry right at the clinic. Later, while playing basketball he got poked in his eye right just before his Calculus 2 finals. The UHCO’s Contact Lens resident doctor at the time, Dr. Brian Marshall, took care of him at 9pm that day.
“I thought that was huge and this made me realize that this is a great profession that impacts people and that drew me to it.”
Later, he attended TEXOCOP, a six-week immersion program in optometry. Dr Enrique Medrano, the Dean of Students had encouraged him to attend TEXOCOP. He learned optometry skills, took basic classes in optometry and got the opportunity to take care of patients at a Vision Screening in a community center.
“TEXOCOP completed my path into optometry,” he said and urges students to stay involved at school and participate in student organizations.
Today, optometry has changed Dr. Nguyen’s outlook on life. Owning an independent practice, and taking care of patients for over 20 years, has made him very pragmatic about problem solving. “You can be the most gifted clinician and find out exactly what is wrong with the person clinically, but if your treatment options doesn’t make sense to that person in their daily life, you are not solving their problem. Optometry has also taught me about how public policy impacts our daily lives,” he said.
Dr. Nguyen is a passionate advocate of issues impacting optometry. He closely follows regulatory and legislative issues that impact the profession. According to him, Scope of Practice Laws in Texas haven’t changed enough to keep up with the change in the profession. “In addition to scope of care, insurance coverage laws impact patient access to vision care. Also, disruptive technologies and changing trends in consumer behavior are changing optometry as a profession,” stated Dr. Nguyen. “We must adapt and we need to actively support out state and national Optometry Associations to take care of the profession that takes care of us.”
Dr. Nguyen encourages optometry students to network, be part of the Student Texas Optometry Association (STOA), and the AOSA. He said one of his friends while at UHCO, Dr. Raj Patel, encouraged him to be more active in STOA, which led him to attend the annual TOA convention where he met the late Dr. Dan Pickard. Dr. Nguyen joined his practice upon graduation and later acquired the practice.
Dr Nguyen is currently the President of UHCO’s fundraising arm, the Foundation for Education and Research in Vision (FERV). He is very optimistic about FERV’s future and would like to encourage students who are beneficiaries of FERV scholarships to pay it forward.
Now, with a family of his own, Dr. Steve Nguyen is continuing to make a better life for his family, as his parents did for him and his siblings. His wife is Dr. Lien Lam-Nguyen (UHCO 2001), and they have two kids- Max (13) and Sidney Claire (10). Dr. Nguyen spends his free time coaching his son’s baseball team and attending his daughter’s gymnastic meets. “My children teach me to take a lighter attitude to life and enjoy the moment; they are my role models,” says Dr. Nguyen.
Had it not been for that faithful journey in 1975, Dr. Steven Nguyen would not have become the philanthropist, leader and advocate for optometry he is today. We thank him for his dedication to UHCO, the FERV Board, and look for him to continue Enhancing Vision for Life.