Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity

January 22, 2016

Alumni Q&A with Alvin Tran, ‘10

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Alvin Tran

Alvin Tran has been busy since receiving two undergraduate degrees from the UW in 2010. He jumped right into graduate school at Emory University where he earned a master’s degree in public health. Since then he’s worked as a media intern with KQED Public Radio in San Francisco, a health policy reporter for Kaiser Health News in Washington, D.C., and a news writer for WHDH-TV in Boston. Oh, and he is also pursuing doctorate degrees in public health nutrition and social & behavioral sciences at Harvard. Alvin recently took some time to reflect on his Husky Experience and the impact it’s made on his life today.

Q: What initially led to your decision to attend the UW?

Alvin Tran: UW was at the very top of my list of colleges back when I was a high school senior. I remember visiting the university for the first time with my parents. I immediately fell in love with the campus, students and academic environment during that visit. As the first person in my family to go to college, I wanted to be at a university that offered me support. UW’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity (OMA&D) – especially the students and staff at the Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center (ECC) – provided me with the academic and emotional support I needed to succeed in the rigorous science courses offered at the UW.

Q: How would you describe your experience as a student here?

AT: I was a double degree student at UW. I graduated with a bachelor of science in public health and a bachelor of arts in medical anthropology and global health. Looking back, I can clearly remember those late night study sessions at Odegaard Library with my classmates. For me, being at UW was about finding the right balance between my social life and studying hard. My regular routine would be attending class, doing homework and studying for exams, and being involved with the various organizations on campus. I was the former president of the Minority Association of Pre-Health Students (MAPS) and was very involved in advocating for diversity and inclusion both in the health professions and across UW’s campus.

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As a UW student, Alvin found a sense of community at OMA&D’s Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center.

Q: Describe the impact those experiences made on both your academic and personal journeys?

AT: Being a UW student helped me evolve into the leader I am today. Being a part of the OMA&D, especially through my involvement with MAPS, definitely pushed me to step out of my comfort zone. As a freshman, I was shy and an introvert. Over time, I learned to speak up on behalf of students who had concerns about the campus climate and effectively led a team of fellow students to organize conferences on campus that aimed to promote acceptance and cultural competency. UW is a very diverse campus. The students come from wide array of backgrounds and vary across race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation and many other categories. Ensuring that every student had a voice was important to me. It was also important to my classmates and friends at the OMA&D and ECC.

Q: What advice would you give to an incoming UW freshman – how should they and can they make the most of their time here?

AT: I came from a very small town in Washington state called Camas. Thus, attending a large university, such as UW, was overwhelming at first. It was definitely a culture shock. Finding students with similar interests was key to helping me with my transition from high school to college. I would recommend that incoming freshmen join student organizations that are interesting to them. I met many students through organizations on campus who are some of my closest friends today. We were a small family then and still keep in touch.

Q: What has been the biggest difference between your undergraduate studies and graduate school?

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With two UW classmates during Alvin’s undergraduate days.

AT: Undergraduate and graduate programs are both challenging in their own ways. For me, college was about figuring out the answer to the “what do I want to be when I grow up?” question. Graduate school is about achieving that dream. In ways, being an undergraduate is harder than being a graduate student because you’re still learning a lot about yourself – your interests, your passion, your goals.

Q: What is it like living in Boston? How have you adjusted to living away from home?

AT: One word – cold. Being in Boston has definitely been quite the change. The winters are much harsher here which I have grown used to over time. So that light rain jacket I wore as a UW undergrad won’t help me much in New England. That said, I do miss the northwest, especially the Seattle atmosphere. Seattle has its own unique charm and personality that I greatly miss. My daily life in Boston feels more fast-paced than it did back in Seattle where things seemed more relaxed. I also miss the coffee scene and my occasional trips to Pike Place Market on the weekends. As for adjusting, it is an ongoing challenge being away from my family. My parents and siblings are still on the West Coast – so it’s hard seeing them only once or twice a year. I’m very grateful for FaceTime and other apps that allow me to chat with my family virtually face-to-face on frequent occasions.

eNews button Winter 2016Q: What is it like to attend Harvard?

AT: I’m currently a doctor of science student in two departments at Harvard – Nutrition and Social & Behavioral Sciences. The coursework can be very rigorous depending on the subject. The biostatistics and epidemiology courses remind me a lot about the chemistry and physics courses I took at UW – they’re challenging, but doable. Nevertheless, it’s an honor to be studying at a university where I can learn from leaders who continue to influence and create policy. For example, I regularly take courses with professors who helped the federal government update the latest nutritional guidelines. At Harvard, I’m still involved as a student leader and am continuing a lot of the advocacy work I started at UW. As a student of color, as well as a first-generation college student, I make an effort to be at the forefront of social justice issues in academic settings. Last year, I served as the student government president at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and advocated for increased diversity and inclusion across campus. I organized several events aimed at educating students about LGBT issues, health disparities, and structural discrimination.

Q: What did you learn from your time at the UW that has most benefited you during life after college?

AT: Finding the right balance between your academic and social life can be hard to do after college – but it’s necessary for your health and well-being. As graduate students, my classmates and I often undergo periods of stress due to exams, research projects and other academic-related tasks. I alleviate that stress by making time to engage in physical activity, going to see off-Broadway shows and simply take a lot of coffee breaks with my closest friends. The key word here is “balance.”

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Alvin recently met former Washington state governor Christine Gregoire.

Q: What piece of advice has helped you the most professionally?

AT: Being an effective communicator is essential for succeeding as a student and as a professional. There are many forms of communication beyond speech. Being in graduate school and having worked in Washington, D.C. as a health reporter, I learned that being able to write well and knowing how to effectively communicate ideas to others is critical for any professional field. I spent a lot of time and effort learning how to communicate to others effectively through writing. This has also opened the door for me to write articles for many news organizations as a health journalist, including NPR, NBC, and the Washington Post.

Q: Hopes and plans for the future?

AT: I’m still a few years from completing my doctor of science program, so everything is a bit up in the air right now. Ideally, I would like to use my research to inform the creation of policies. My program at Harvard is training me to become a public health nutrition professor and researcher, and I am constantly working to use existing research findings to advocate for legislation that would improve health outcomes over time. My advisor and I recently advocated for new legislation in Massachusetts that would prohibit minors from buying dangerous, unregulated dietary supplements for weight loss and muscle building. That said, I wouldn’t mind working as a director for a federal agency, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration. After gaining some full-time experience doing research and teaching, I’ll definitely consider working in the government sector and doing some policy work. Only time will tell.