As the first member of his family to earn a college degree, Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH, went on to earn his doctorate from Harvard University. As a professor and advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity, Dr. Tran endeavors to support and inspire current University of New Haven students, many of whom are also first-generation students.
July 1, 2021
Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH, spent a significant amount of his childhood in a video rental store. That meant he got to watch lots of different movies that, he says, taught him about American culture, resilience, and to have big dreams.
The store, Sunset Home Video, was owned by his parents, who immigrated from Vietnam 40 years ago with big dreams of their own. They raised Dr. Tran and their other two children in southwestern Washington State. They, too, learned about the culture in their new home country from what they watched on television and in movies, and what they saw even inspired the names they chose for their children.
“I’m proud of my name because it reminds me of the video rental store that my parents ran to make ends meet and to put a roof over my head,” said Dr. Tran, who is named after Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks. “Growing up in a video rental store taught me something very important. Being able to watch all those movies taught me to dream.”
Dr. Tran, whose childhood heroes included Indiana Jones, had his own particularly big dream: to become the first member of his family to graduate from college. He went on to do just that, earning bachelor’s degrees in public health and medical anthropology and global health from the University of Washington.
He acknowledges that it wasn’t easy, as he didn’t have college experiences of his parents or family members to guide him. He had questions beyond what many college students had, such as “do we have the money for college” – not simply “do I have the money.”
“‘First-generation college graduate’ is a title I’m very proud of,” said Dr. Tran. “I try to share this with as many people as I can, including my students. I overcame a lot of challenges that many first-generation students don’t get to overcome.”
‘There’s a lot of momentum right now’
It turns out his bachelor’s degrees were just the first step in his educational journey. Dr. Tran went on to earn his Master of Public Health from Emory University and his Doctor of Science in public health nutrition, social and behavioral sciences from Harvard University.
Dr. Tran shared his story as part of the University’s 2021 “Last Lecture,” which is part of the annual faculty awards ceremony.
The “last lecture” series is modeled after a presentation made in 2007 by Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, who delivered his "last lecture" titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" a month after he learned that the pancreatic cancer he had been diagnosed with a year earlier was terminal. He died ten months after delivering the address, and his talk became the basis for a New York Times best seller.
As part of the University’s “last lecture” series, President Steve Kaplan
selects a faculty member each year to deliver the talk, and the speaker’s identity is kept a secret until the presenter is introduced.
A "last lecture" challenges top academics to give a hypothetical "final talk" about something that matters deeply to them and to offer the wisdom they would wish to impart to the world if they knew it was their last chance.
Dr. Tran shared his experience as a first-generation student, as well as the importance of fostering first-generation students’ success. He likened the skills he developed as a first-generation student to riding a bike, since it is a skill one does not forget once mastered.
“I hope we teach our first-generation students how to ride their bikes,” he said. “We also have many first-generation faculty and staff members at the University. There’s a lot of momentum right now, and I hope we continue that.”
‘I’m full of gratitude because I’m at the University of New Haven’
A former healthcare reporter for Kaiser Health News in Washington, D.C., Dr. Tran joined the School of Health Sciences as a professor in 2019. Last year he was appointed assistant provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Among his many passions, he is devoted to supporting first-generation students.
As part of his “last lecture,” Dr. Tran urged the University community to use the “great opportunity” they have to make a difference in the lives of the University’s many first-generation students. He stressed the importance of programs that help students transition from high school to college, of ensuring affordability, and of mentorship.
“I’m full of gratitude because I’m at the University of New Haven,” said Dr. Tran. “I’m glad to teach at a university with a high percentage of first-generation students like I was a decade ago. I hope we continue to invest in them and make a positive impact in their lives.”