This is part of an occasional series on immigrants in our area.
As a child growing up in Vietnam, Tuan Nguyen was fascinated by tigers: graceful, powerful and majestic.
He followed with alarm the near extinction of the big cats throughout southeast Asia, victims of poaching and loss of habitat.
Nguyen, 22, carried his love for tigers and other endangered species into his adult life, and after graduating from high school, he enrolled in veterinary school with the intention of playing a role in wildlife conservation.
“People believe that tigers have medicinal and mystical properties, and they take everything from the tiger, from the bone to the meat to the skin to the fur,” said Nguyen, his infectious, ever-present wide smile disappearing for a moment. “I don’t think our government has any motivation to bring them back. They have basically become extinct. I hope to help them.”
Nguyen was a veterinary student in 2016 when his parents announced the family was moving to the United States to open a nail salon.
“If I stayed in Vietnam, I would have been the only one left behind,” said Nguyen, one of five children. “They said, ‘We are leaving in two weeks,’ so I packed.”
In October 2016, Nguyen and his family left their home in the Binh Phuoc province – about 100 miles from Saigon – and arrived in Washington, where they set about establishing the nail salon.
Nguyen, who spoke little English (he learned some in high school), abandoned his plans to be a veterinarian and worked in the nail salon.
But he missed school, so about four months after coming to the United States, Nguyen walked into the offices of the Literacy Council of Southwestern Pennsylvania to learn English in the hopes of attending an American college.
He got plenty of help from the tutors at the literacy council, who were eager to prepare him for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam he needed pass to enroll in college.
“I didn’t think I could pass it, but because there were four people who helped me, I said I must pass this,” he laughed. “I did not want to let them down.”
Nguyen enrolled in California University of Pennsylvania, where he is a junior biology major with a pre-professional concentration.
Once he earns his undergraduate degree, Nguyen will apply to U.S. veterinary schools, and he plans to complete the four-year veterinary program.
“It takes five years, total, to become a veterinarian in Vietnam, but in the United States, it takes eight. My friends in Vietnam ask me what I am doing, and tell me I should go to work, not school,” said Nguyen. “But I’ve always wanted to work with exotic animals. I want to be an exotic veterinarian.”
Nguyen’s parents, meanwhile, decided that Pennsylvania’s bitter winters were too much for them to endure, so they moved back to Vietnam.
Nguyen and his siblings stayed in the United States and live with relatives.
To earn money, Nguyen works as a general chemistry teaching assistant and tutor.
In addition, Nguyen shadows veterinarians at Waynesburg Animal Hospital, where he is gaining experience in skills ranging from diagnosis to surgeries.
As a member of Cal U’s Wildlife Society, Nguyen was a part of the group’s restoration ecology work, removing invasive plant species at The Wilds, the second largest zoological park in the world, in Cumberland, Ohio.
And whenever he has free time, Nguyen volunteers at the Humane Animal Rescue Wildlife Center in Verona, which cares for injured, orphaned and ill native Pennsylvania wildlife, and the Washington Area Humane Society.
“He’s probably one of the most determined students I’ve ever had,” said Erin Vitale, one of Nguyen’s tutors. “He’s very goal-oriented, hardworking and inquisitive. He’s not afraid to ask questions if he doesn’t understand something, and he really enjoys learning.”
Dr. Carol Bocetti, a professor in Cal U’s Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, echoed Vitale’s comments, noting, “Despite his limited English language skills, he very clearly communicated his passion for animals.”
Nguyen also landed one of five internship spots available this past summer at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Boyd, Texas, outside of Dallas, which houses about 70 big cats, including lions and cougars, and other large animals.
The sanctuary is a permanent home for exotic animals who have been abused, abandoned, neglected, seized by the state, or privately possessed.
“Tuan certainly was an enthusiastic individual. He holds his passion close to his heart,” said Jeremy Vargo, executive director at the sanctuary. “It’s a lot of work, and he jumped into different assignments and did them very well.”
Nguyen spent three months living at the sanctuary – the only U.S. sanctuary that is certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums – where he learned to properly care for the wildlife, including feeding, and led tours for visitors.
“Safety is the first priority, but I want to enrich each animal’s life and help it to have the best life that it can,” said Nguyen.
On a recent Sunday, Nguyen spent the morning cleaning out the cages that contained birds that were rehabbing – among them, a red tailed hawk, turkey vultures, a crow with a limited vocabulary (Tuan was working to teach the bird to say “squirrel”) – and feeding other animals, including a porcupine, fox and turtle.
He said he feels comfortable, and at home, among the wildlife.
Nguyen has other plans, too: he wants to become a U.S. citizen and join the Army.
He has made many friends at Cal U., and is thankful for the help he has gotten from college professors and from the literacy council.
“When I first came here, everyone could hardly understand what I said. Kris (Drach, a literacy council board member and volunteer) had to correct me often,” said Nguyen. “I did not expect to learn so much from a free institution that does not charge anything, but I have learned a lot.”
Nguyen ultimately wants to open a sanctuary in Southeast Asia, and to bring back tigers to the national forest and wildlife areas.
“I hope that we can co-exist in a world where tigers and species that are endangered still remain,” said Nguyen. “I want to make sure that they survive.”