Advice to new students: Embrace your challenges
May 2, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
It’s a long way from Singapore to midtown Atlanta and Georgia Tech, but Ngoc Yen Chi Huynh (Chi to her friends) made the journey thanks to advice from an influential alumnus – who attended the same Singapore private school and went on to run a major airline. Even though she has embraced Southern humidity, sweet tea, and Saturdays at Bobby Dodd, she praises the Institute for its “international environment,” thanks to its student diversity. Huynh is graduating with a B.S. in Mathematics and will seek a Ph.D. in the field.
What attracted you to Georgia Tech?
I was able to attend United World College South East Asia (UWCSEA) in Singapore, thanks to the generosity of Robert A. Milton, a Georgia Tech and UWCSEA alumni, along with his wife, Lizanne. I learned about Georgia Tech through my many conversations with Mr. Milton. He praised the experience he had at Tech and gave me a good impression of the Institute even before I started making a list of colleges. He knew about my interest in pursuing a major in math or one of the sciences, so he suggested I should apply to Tech.
How would you describe your life before enrolling in Georgia Tech?
My high school was one of 13 United World Colleges, a system of high schools committed to creating a culturally diverse environment by allowing students from around the world to study together. As such, my high school experience was quite colorful and memorable. However, it was also a somewhat idealistic environment, so I sometimes felt I was living in a bubble. Georgia Tech was a nice change for me. It is still a very international environment, but closer to reality.
What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?
I learned how to balance having a long-term goal and allowing yourself to live in the moment. During my first couple of years, I was too obsessed with the life I had planned for myself after college. I concentrated on graduating early. I became unhappy because I gradually realized I might have chosen the wrong major – at the time, I was studying industrial engineering. Thanks to the advice of friends, I decided to stop worrying and take classes that actually interested me, including math. This detour helped me not only to enjoy my time in college a lot more, but also to find the major that I really want to pursue.
What surprised or disappointed you the most about Georgia Tech?
I was surprised the most by how religious a lot of my friends are and how everyone seems to be very respectful of others’ beliefs. That made for a vibrant campus scene.
The one thing that disappoints me the most is the lack of support for international students on campus. That’s despite the size of this community. I know that the Office of International Education has been working hard to create a friendly, enriching environment for international students. However, in terms of experiences outside the classroom such as summer internships and research, I do not think there are a lot of publicized sources of help for these students on the Tech campus.
Which professor(s) or class(es) made a big impact on you?
Two professors in the School of Mathematics: Professor Christine Heitsch, who taught Foundation of Mathematical Proof and advised me on research, and Professor Kirsten Wickelgren, who taught me complex analysis and abstract algebra. They both gave me valuable career advice. They had an impact on me because they are very successful women in a male-dominated field. They helped me believe in myself and my prospects as a mathematician.
What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?
My most vivid memory of Tech has to be my first football game in 2013, the Georgia vs. Georgia Tech game after Thanksgiving. This was the first time I actually experienced school spirit as I got to watch what goes on in a football game: the marching band, the cheerleaders, the color guards, etc. I was somewhat in awe because this was something I only saw in movies. Participating in the game and its traditions really made me feel like I was finally a part of Georgia Tech.
If you participated in experiential learning activities, what was the most valuable outcome of your experience?
I have been involved in a research project on RNA folding in viruses with Professor Heitsch since spring 2015. When it comes to study abroad, I was part of the Language Business and Technology (LBAT): France program in Paris and Nice in summer 2015. This was an amazing experience during my time at Tech, as I got to immerse myself in the French culture and advance my French language skills. Thanks to this program, I was able to earn a minor in French without adding to my already busy schedule.
On the basis of your experience, what advice would you give to incoming freshmen at Georgia Tech?
I would advise incoming freshmen to not shy away from challenges, whether it is a harder version of a class or a research opportunity. What fun is there to be in a situation where you don’t have to put in any effort to be good? It’s also completely okay to not know what you want to do as a freshman. I thought I wanted to study industrial engineering when I first enrolled, but I changed my major at the end of my sophomore year.
What feedback would you give to Georgia Tech to improve the campus experience for future students?
Because of Tech’s size, it is sometimes difficult, especially for new and international students, to navigate the administration. It would help tremendously if there were more people among the faculty who have a good understanding of the challenges for new and international students.
In addition, I think the School of Mathematics is going in the right direction by designing a curriculum that allows math majors to declare different concentrations depending on their interests and long-term goals. However, from talking to several younger math majors, many are worried about what they can do outside of class to educate themselves about mathematical research. If the school could assist them in finding these opportunities along with choosing the right concentration, we could produce even stronger math majors.
Where are you headed after graduation?
I am heading to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Ph.D program in mathematics. Georgia Tech has prepared me very well, both in terms of the knowledge I gained during my time here and the skills not taught in the classroom.