UMass Boston PhD candidate receives fellowship to support research on Vietnamese families and autism

Only five to seven percent of applicants are accepted into the American Psychological Association’s Minority Fellowship Program, which covers the remaining tuition for the accepted student’s schooling. Yet in 2019, two students in UMass Boston’s Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program received this honor.

Third-year student Darrick Scott was accepted into the program earlier this year, and now, sixth-year doctoral candidate Thanh Nguyen has received the selective honor. For Nguyen, not having to worry about paying for school is a big deal.

“I can just focus on finishing my dissertation proposal and then move forward with the dissertation,” Nguyen said.

When Nguyen, 32, first arrived on campus from Vietnam by way of Union City, California, her research focus was strictly on early diagnosis of autism. During her time at UMass Boston, Nguyen expanded her research to addressing health service disparities among racial and ethnic minority families dealing with autism and other developmental disabilities—especially the Southeast Asian population. Three years ago, she joined Professor of Psychology Karen Suyemoto’s Asian American Research Team.

Nguyen plans to focus her dissertation around how Vietnamese American families make meaning of what family is in the context of raising a child with autism. Nguyen says most interventions are focused on the child with autism as opposed to helping the family cope. There’s also not a lot of data out there.

“There’s more documentation of children from white families,” Nguyen said. “When it comes to other racial minorities, there are more statistics on Latinx children where the diagnosis is much later, but when it comes to the Asian American population, you don’t have enough to say it’s statistically significant. When it comes to the Southeast Asian population, there is barely anyone who participates in research. There are barely any numbers, per se, but that does not mean that it’s not there.

“If there’s a cultural perception that’s different then it might not be a red flag in terms of ‘Oh, this is autism,’” she said.

For Nguyen, the research is personal. As a toddler her younger brother, born two years after the family immigrated to California, wasn’t responding to his name or maintaining eye contact. Her parents took him to the doctor shortly after his first birthday, but he wasn’t diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder until he was three.

“Because we didn’t get a referral for a full developmental evaluation with a psychologist until much later, my brother missed out on early intervention,” Nguyen said. “Given my parents’s limited English proficiency, I’ve been learning about autism and ways to support my brother and my family. That then extended to others impacted by autism.”

Nguyen has been part of the mental health and health promotion outreach service on campus called UMB-UR-BEST, and she’s been a part of the Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program’s Diversity Committee. Last year she taught Asian American Psychology during the fall and spring semesters.

Nguyen said she was drawn to the Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program because of the program’s social justice emphasis and the diversity of the university population as a whole. It didn’t take long for her to feel at home.

“On my interview day I felt so supported and connected and it felt like a family to me. That has been something that has continued,” Nguyen said.

The goal of the Minority Fellowship Program is to increase the number of ethnic minority professionals in the field and help promising graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and early career professionals achieve lasting success in areas related to ethnic minority psychology.