ATLAS Stories:  Linh Dang

By Emma Spring

There exists a symphony of giggles and laughter that resonates when talking with Linh Dang. Dang’s origins trace back to a small town in Vietnam where her youthful dreams began to take shape. Her parents’ vision was to provide her with a better education, leading them to embark on a journey across the oceans to Michigan in the United States when she was just seventeen. 

The move to the United States, though brimming with hope, posed its own set of struggles. Her parents, older and unfamiliar with the English language, faced challenges in finding work when they moved just before the 2008 recession. For Dang, too, navigating the educational landscape was a whirlwind. Arriving in Michigan, she braced herself not only for the cold, but for the storm of a new language.

“I had no idea what the hell was going on,” said Dang with endless laughter. “They were just talking, and they talk[ed] so fast. Why are you talking so fast? Just slow down!”

But she persevered, adapting and learning to navigate the unfamiliar waters of academia. She pursued her undergraduate studies in biochemistry, fueled by a desire to become a doctor. However, fate had different plans, when she faced rejection from medical schools. The setback morphed when Dang stumbled upon public health, guided by a serendipitous encounter with her future mentor, Briana Mezuk.

“Originally I wanted to go pre-med. I apply[ed] for med school and then I got rejected. After I got rejected, I apply[ed] for [my] Masters in Public Health [MPH],” said Dang. “I didn’t like pre-med, it turns out. Having contact with a patient and with mental health…it’s emotional. I rather like how I am, looking at my computer.”

Dang’s fascination with the human psyche and a deep-seated interest in people’s emotions had always been woven into her heart. Growing up in an Asian community where mental health was often hushed in secrecy, Dang harbored an unspoken curiosity about the complexities of the human mind. 

“Mental health is taboo in Asian culture,” said Dang. “You don’t talk about it. We avoid that topic… Their work on mental health is [that] you have a problem from your heart, but I’ve always been interested in how people think and then about psychology in general. Probably that’s part of the reason that’s shaped my interest in mental health. ”

The societal stigma surrounding mental health planted seeds of curiosity within her, questioning why such a significant aspect of human existence remained obscured from discussion. Dang’s family, embedded in a culture rooted in traditional values, struggled to grasp the concept of mental health. Communicating her newfound passion for mental health research has proved challenging, as words often fall short when attempting to translate emotions and ideas between two contrasting cultures. 

“They don’t really know what I’m doing to be honest,” said Dang. “I also don’t know how to explain it to them. They know that I’m doing something with computers and something with coding, but they don’t fully know exactly what I’m doing. It’s hard for me to even explain what I’m doing in Vietnam because the vocabulary is not the same. It’s too much for me, so I don’t usually tell them.”

Dang doesn’t love reflecting back on her life thus far. Instead, gardening with her father, cherishing moments with her cat, and even a bit of therapeutic shopping become her refuge—a sanctuary that nurtures her spirit.

“I originally wasn’t [studying] aging, to be honest. I met Bri, and one thing  led to another,” said Dang. “Now you make me like go back [to reflect on the past], I would say ‘no way in hell.’ I think part of the shock was trying to figure everything out yourself growing up when you don’t really have guidance, but you just sort of push through it.”

Dang expressed that she feels her story isn’t unique solely for its individuality; it resonates with the experiences of countless other immigrants. Her life so far is a testament to the power of resilience and the profound influence of personal experiences on the path one walks. In her pursuit of mental health research, she brings an infectious heart full of laughter. 

“I don’t think my story is unique,” said Dang. “Another immigrant, they would say the same thing. I just remember that I didn’t know what was going on. That’s the only thing that I remember but I don’t remember how I learned English.”

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