By Joe Garvey

With the emphasis on STEM education these days, it might seem surprising for a student to switch majors from the sciences to liberal arts.

Hoang Nguyen would disagree.

"I always think of Robin Williams' character in 'Dead Poets Society,'" said Nguyen, who switched majors from computer science to English and will receive his bachelor's degree in December. "He says that the STEM subjects are 'noble pursuits ... necessary to sustain life,' but the liberal arts are 'what we stay alive for.'

"There's a pure human element to it that can't be replaced. My specific field is linguistics, which is more of a social science, but I think all English disciplines deal with how we communicate with one another. That's never going out of business."

Staci Defibaugh, assistant professor of applied linguistics, described Nguyen as someone who "sees the value in an English degree and a liberal arts education."

"He was a computer science major when he came to ODU - a major that has a clear path to a lucrative profession - and then changed his major to English with an applied language studies concentration - a major that has no clear path to a profession but instead one that had the potential in a variety of fields," she said.

Nguyen will be a first-generation college graduate. His family emigrated from South Vietnam to Denver in 2000, then moved to Virginia Beach in 2012. He graduated from Landstown High School.

He said he decided to major in computer science if got a decent score on his AP exam. He did, but with what he called a "marginal" score of 3 (he scored 5 in AP English language and composition). He enrolled at ODU after earning an associate degree at Tidewater Community College.

"From the start, I had been interested in an English major, but I felt like the job market was pushing me toward a technological field," he said.

He found the computer science classes very challenging at ODU.

"I really started to feel the overwhelming stress of it," he said. "I wasn't happy. One night, partway into my first semester, I called my mother and told her I couldn't continue doing computer science. I thought she'd try to assure me and tell me to keep going, but instead, she asked what I wanted to do. I told her I wanted to major in English, and I had her full support."

He has thrived in the English program, conducting real-life ethnological research; presenting an in-depth study of Luiseño, a little-used language; and constructing an English as a Second Language class.

Defibaugh, who taught the ESL class, said that though Nguyen told her he wasn't interested in teaching ESL, he sought out research articles on topics related to the course on his own.

"It's exciting to see a student who is motivated to learn - not for a grade or to pass a class - but because he is genuinely interested," she said.

Down the road, Nguyen said he'd like to seek a master's degree in linguistics. He also has an interest in the video-game industry.

"Of course, the computer science route would have been a much more direct path toward that, but I'll get there with linguistics, too," he said. "I just have to discover how I fit. After all, linguistics is at the crossroads of every discipline."

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