TJ Nguyen, an Auburn University senior in mechanical engineering from Hoover, was recently named the hardest working student employee in the country at Auburn’s annual Student Employee of the Year Recognition Reception.
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“I was really surprised,” Nguyen said. “I don’t see myself as the hardest working student [employee] in America.”
The reception, held on April 9 at the Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center by the Auburn University Career Center, was held to honor Auburn Student Employee of the Year nominees, nominated by their respective departments. Twenty-seven different Auburn students, from almost as many departments, were honored.
Nguyen was crowned the Auburn Student Employee of the Year, as determined by the Career Center, and then was revealed to have been chosen as the 2013 National Student Employee of the Year by the president of the National Student Employment Association.
“I didn’t realize I was winning a second award,” Nguyen said. “When they called me up, I just thought they were gonna give me a plaque and a check for the first award, and then I realized it was a whole separate award. That one really hit me. Everybody stood up and I was sort of sitting there, not realizing it. I just stood up, in shock.”
Nguyen has been a dedicated employee of the College of Sciences and Mathematics Outreach office since his sophomore year.
“I work every day,” Nguyen said. “I’ve worked 20-25 hours a week. There’s always events coming up. If I’m in charge of an event, I’ll come in and do everything I need to do - send out registration forms, accept registration forms [and] put them in the database, make name tags, gather materials…. A lot of the events are on top of each other, so we’re preparing for multiple events at one time.
I love my job. I really enjoy coming to work.”
One of the things Nguyen loves best about his job is spreading his love of engineering with the next generation.
“It’s always been a passion of mine to give back and work with kids,” he said. “We put together math, science and engineering events for K-12 kids to get them involved and interested in math and science from an early age.
I’m in a couple of other organizations, and I do the same type of thing. I’m a Cupola Engineering Ambassador, and I’m on [the] high school relations committee. I put on events through [the Society of Women Engineers] to get girls interested in math and science as well. The week after spring break, I put together an event with local Girl Scouts and Hyundai - it was called Hyundai Fun Day - and we did a tie-dye event and explained the chemical process behind tie-dye.”
Something else Nguyen is passionate about, that helped lead him to his major, is robotics. Nguyen has been building robots as part of the BEST robotics competition since he was in the eighth grade. He was elected the head of his team during his junior and senior years of high school.
“When I got into robots, I really loved the robotics part, and I kind of grew into the outreach part as I got older,” he said. “I first did the robotics competition when I was 14 and I’ve been working it every year I’ve been at Auburn, so I’ve been in it nine out of the 20 years it’s existed.
This past year, I was floor boss and technical coordinator for Auburn, so I taught all the teachers how to use the kits and what the purpose of each electronic piece was.”
He says his team did “awful” his first year in the competition.
“We didn’t know what we were doing. They give you a box of junk - just like plywood and PVC and door hinges… just random stuff, and some electronic parts and you basically have to build a robot that moves and has an arm and completes certain game objectives.”
The hardest working college student in America is not just all work, though.
“In my free time, I play every intramural sport I can - softball, volleyball, flag football…. I play pickup basketball at the Act a lot. And then I just recently became certified to teach yoga.”
With a full class load, a part time job and the demands that come with being an engineering student, Nguyen seems to find more free time than the average college student.
“Part of that is scheduling things that I want to do,” he says. “For me, if I have free time, I’m going to waste it, so I just fill up my schedule with so many things that, if I don’t manage it, I’m going to fall behind. People say the things that they want to do for their free time, but I feel like it’s worth scheduling in just as much as meetings and homework and stuff like that.”
Nguyen believes the fact that he is a middle child helps inspires his unparalleled work ethic.
“I really hate feeling like I’m a burden on others, so I work really hard to carry my weight, and then as much additional weight as I can,” he said. “That’s always driven me. I’ve worked every year ‘cause I pay my own way through school.”
Nguyen, who says he generally takes between 14 and 18 hours every semester, will be graduating from Auburn in May with his bachelor's degree and plans to immediately come back for his master’s.
After that, Nguyen sees himself finding his way back to the classroom.
“I’ve always had an interest in teaching,” he said.
As a senior in high school, he was allowed the opportunity to teach a sophomore level engineering class.
“It happened to be my sister’s class. That was my first taste of teaching, and I loved it.”
Last year afforded Nguyen another opportunity to teach.
“While I was co-oping last spring, I was working in Birmingham for a natural gas company. One of the engineering professors at Hoover had to have emergency surgery. He was at school Friday, he was doing an event Saturday, left the event and never came back to school. So he needed a sub for the last two months of class. He asked me if I wanted to be a sub and I was of course interested. Luckily, my company was flexible with my hours. I changed my hours at work and would go to Hoover from eight to 10 and teach two classes. I loved it. I loved going in for those two hours way more than I loved going in to co-op. So when I graduate, I think I’m gonna end up teaching at some point.”
Whether it’s in the classroom, in the yoga studio or coordinating events at COSAM, Nguyen teaches lessons everywhere he goes.
“I still feel like there’s more things I could do. I don’t know if that’s just a mindset. I don’t realize that I’m working hard because I love what I do.”