From refugee camp to biotech with a stop on the Hilltop

The story of Alice Nguyen ’80 begins in Vietnam, winds its way through a refugee camp and the Cornell campus, to her current position as associate director for quality control at a California-based biotechnology company.Alice Nguyen '80-2

She was born in what was then North Vietnam and moved to the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon when she was 10. A decade later, as South Vietnam’s government crumbled, she left the country for good with her entire family on a ship bound for Guam and, ultimately, the United States. They were among 800,000 Vietnamese who resettled in the U.S.

“We left on the day the communists took over Saigon in April 1975,” she remembers.

After processing and physicals in Guam, Nguyen and her parents, her siblings, her grandparents, and her in-laws ended up at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. James Kauffman, then Cornell’s vice president of admissions and student affairs, traveled to Fort Chaffee to recruit Vietnamese students. That fall, six Vietnamese students enrolled at Cornell. Among them was Alice Nguyen’s sister, Hang Thu Nguyen ’79. Alice stayed at Fort Chaffee to wait for her husband’s paperwork to arrive.

The churches of Mount Vernon banded together to bring extended family to Mount Vernon. Alice and her husband applied and were admitted for the fall semester 1976. At one time Alice and her sister, her husband, Albert Nguyen ’80 (now deceased), and her father, Quy Ba Nguyen ’78, were all attending Cornell. Her father, who was hired by Cornell to join the painting crew, had been a pharmacist in Vietnam. After receiving his degree from Cornell, he went to the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy and became a pharmacy technician.

Alice majored in chemistry, biology, and French at Cornell, got licensed in medical technology, had two babies, born in 1976 and 1977, and still managed to graduate on time in a foreign country speaking her third language (she spoke both Vietnamese and French more fluently).

In 1981 she and Albert and her extended family moved to California, where her father had gotten a job as a pharmacy technician. She’s lived there ever since, adding three more children to her family.

She has used her Cornell chemistry background for jobs in toxicology, computer manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. Today she’s associate director of quality control for Heron Therapeutics, a biotech company that develops medicines that address major unmet medical needs. Her function is to oversee the quality of the drug product before it is released for human use and throughout its shelf life.

All five of her children graduated from college and have successful careers. In June she moved to San Diego where two of her four grandchildren live.

She remembers her time at Cornell fondly. “Everyone in Mount Vernon was very nice,” she says. “I appreciate all the help my family and I got from the people.

“I got a very well-rounded education at Cornell,” she adds. “It has a very good liberal arts program. I am very proud to have graduated from such a good school.”