True Voice

BY NATHAN PHAN | APRIL 2019

Arch Architecture

As I approached the campus student health center, I felt like running away. If it was not for my residential college advisor that was walking me there, I probably would have done just that. The horror stories that my family had always told me about people who had mental health issues began to circulate in my thoughts, and I felt that everything I feared from those stories was finally coming true.

In the summer before my first year at Princeton University, I attended the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI), a program that invited first-generation and low-income students to campus two months early to help them become familiar with the campus and its resources. But after feeling lonely and down for my first weeks there, I was encouraged to see a therapist for the first time in my life. But according to my family, going to therapy was like committing two sins at once: letting others know about my problems and acknowledging that I needed help from someone outside my family.

Coming from a Vietnamese immigrant, first-generation, and low-income family, I spent most of my life being told that I needed to hide these parts of my identity and the challenges related to them. Even though my parents have struggled almost all of their lives working and paying off bills, they made me promise to never tell anyone about what our family struggled with. To them, sharing your problems with others meant it was easier for people to think of me as weak, to be taken advantage of. Growing up my mother always scrambled to find extra cash to donate to my school instead of telling others we could not afford it. When I was applying for college, my father and I were too scared to ask for help with financial aid and tried to handle the aid applications ourselves.

At my first therapy session, I felt uncomfortable trusting a complete stranger and being so vulnerable. It felt like I was betraying myself and everyone in my family. But when I told my therapist that I was a part of FSI, she brought up the common experiences of first-generation, low-income students, that many felt like they were imposters and struggled to fit in at a prestigious university surrounded by wealth. The words she said felt as if she was reading my mind, and speaking with her felt like the first time I was being completely honest with myself.

Throughout my four years at Princeton, seeking mental health resources has been so crucial in helping me navigate my experience as a first-generation, low-income student. Through my experiences in therapy, I have learned how to become my own advocate, finding support from other resources on campus like Princeton’s Writing Center and LGBT Center. I used to be ashamed of being first-generation, low-income and struggling with mental health issues, but now I am able to talk about them openly with others going through similar struggles. The mentors and support that I found throughout my years at Princeton have helped me find the courage to share my own story with others and to destigmatize mental health issues in both the Asian American community and first-generation, low-income community. As a leader in the Scholars Institute Fellows Program, an organization that supports students who are first-generation, low-income throughout the school year, I lead meetings with other underclassmen students every week sharing my experience finding resources on campus, and later this April I will be participating in a mental health forum sharing my experience with mental health issues as an Asian American.

My experience at Princeton has challenged me in many different ways, but going to therapy and seeking out resources on campus made me realize that I am not weak for struggling and reaching out for help like I used to think. If there’s anything I can emphasize the most to first-year students, it’s that it is okay to face challenges and struggles with mental health throughout college and life, and that seeking mental health resources is courageous and anything but weak. As I approach the end of my senior year, I realize that the struggles that I went through do not define me and remind myself that through finding community, I was able to lessen those thoughts of self-doubt and hear my own, true voice.

Nathan Phan

Nathan Sam Nghĩa Phan is a Princeton University graduate, class of 2019, majoring in Comparative Literature, focusing on Japanese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese, and a certificate student in Theater. As a first-generation, low-income (FLI) student and coming from a Vietnamese immigrant family, he served as a Head Fellow for the Scholars Institute Fellows Program, a school organization that helps FLI students find support and resources on campus. Nathan also co-founded Princeton East West Theater, an Asian American, inclusive theater company that strives to make theater and the arts at Princeton University accessible to all students, regardless of ethnicity and experience. He is passionate about Asian American identity, destigmatizing mental health, and queer studies, and he enjoys using theater, songwriting, and performance art as a means to explore those themes.