October 10, 2000
Du Ngoc Nguyen doesn't know why the Medical School Class of 2000 chose to present her with this year's "People Who Make a Difference Award." Nguyen, a cashier in the medical school cafeteria, says she is only doing her job when she tries to make students feel cared for.
"That's my job," Nguyen says. "I love my job. I talk to everybody, say 'thank you, have a nice day,' that's all. The students are very nice people. I love them, too."
For students, sometimes the little things count the most. A word of encouragement or a small act of kindness can make the daily stress of medical school easier to handle. That's why Nguyen received a standing ovation when she accepted her award at this year's Ivy Day in May.
"She goes out of her way to be nice to people, consistently, every day," explains cafeteria manager Diane DiMiceli. At first glance, you might assume Nguyen to be a quiet, shy woman hiding behind her big glasses. She stoops slightly and speaks softly, apologizing for her English, which she thinks is "very bad."
But stationed behind cash register No. 11, she smiles and talks to everyone who comes through her line, no matter how busy the lunch rush. She asks students how their classes are going and wishes them good luck on their exams. She doesn't know the students' names but she remembers their faces, all of them, from her entire 16-year career at Tulane.
Students often come back to visit her after graduation, sometimes bringing new spouses in tow. Her personality seems to be pure sweetness and light. Her life has not been. She is a Vietnamese refugee. After South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1974, her husband spent six years in prison. He had worked for the government of South Vietnam, and served in the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C. from 1964 through 1965.
The couple was finally allowed to leave Vietnam in 1983. They arrived first in California, but settled in New Orleans the following year. Nguyen's mother and sister were already here. Her sister, who worked as a cashier in Tulane's bookstore (and still does), helped Nguyen find a job at the university. Things have become more peaceful since she settled in New Orleans. These are better times. She has many friends and relatives in town. Her daughter has grown up, graduated from school and found a good job. Her husband has retired.
"When my mother died he decided to stay home to be my chauffeur and my cook," she explains. They both get up early so he can get her to work by 6:15. He drops her off a few blocks from the medical school so she can walk a little to get the exercise her legs and ailing knees require. In the afternoon he picks her up, takes her home, and makes her dinner.
They have been married for 47 years. She may retire herself after another year, although she's a little reluctant to go.
"I have a good manager and many friends at work," she says. "My doctor said I can work, and my manager wants to have me."
Although the cafeteria can find another cashier, they may never find anyone who can replace the warmth and attention she brings to her customers. But after a long day she is tired, her gait a little stiff. She fingers the jade necklace the class of 2000 gave her. "I was surprised," she says of the gift. She just doesn't understand what the fuss is about.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org