First-Generation Student Embodies Oath of a Pharmacist

After graduating, Amy Nham will complete a residency with Indian Health Service, a federal program that assists American Indians and Alaska Natives. (Photo by Linda Wang)

By Linda Wang

Amy Nham is one of the first students to graduate with the dual degree of doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) from the USC School of Pharmacy and master of public health (MPH) from the Keck School of Medicine of USC. As a first-generation student, she’s used to forging her own path.

Nham was born and raised in Sóc Trăng, a small city in southern Vietnam. Each of her parents has only a fifth-grade education due to economic barriers, so they left behind the familiar when Nham was 6 years old and immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities.

“At that age, you don’t really know what it means to move to a new country where people don’t speak the same language as you,” Nham says of the transition. “I remember being very flustered all the time.”

They spent a year in Wisconsin before settling in Alhambra, Calif., where the family welcomed two more daughters. Her mother now works as a nail technician, and her father is a machine operator on weekdays and an electrician on weekends.

Nham immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was 6 years old. (Photo courtesy of Amy Nham)

“My parents have always believed that education is the way out of poverty,” Nham says. “They really emphasized its importance because they wanted life to be easier for us than it was for them.”

Traveling as a Health Career Training Ground

Nham set her eyes on a career in health during high school. She honed in on pharmacy after realizing that direct interaction with patients was her priority, and chose to attend USC for its pre-pharmacy program.

In college, she studied abroad twice: first in London with the USC Global Health and Social Medicine program and then on a scholarship to Shanghai for a globalization class. These experiences opened her eyes to how social determinants of health have affected her own family, and sparked an interest in public health. Beyond satisfying her wanderlust, she also credits her travels as a valuable training ground for a health career.

“Even though I’m in pharmacy school, I think there are so many ways to approach health than with just medicine,” she says. “Seeing what other people’s priorities, food, customs are like helps you be more open-minded and understanding when you’re dealing with different people in your future practice.”

Finishing her undergraduate studies in just three years, Nham enrolled in the USC School of Pharmacy because the school’s commitment to serving the community aligned with her own. Holding true to that commitment, she served as co-president of PharmSC Clinic, a student organization that provides free health screenings in East Los Angeles.

Nham and fellow PharmSC Clinic members host free health screening events in the community. (Photo courtesy of Amy Nham)

A year into pharmacy school, still curious about the impact of socioeconomic status on health, she applied to the PharmD/MPH dual-degree program.

“Navigating it was quite stressful… I almost had to make my own curriculum and get it approved,” she says with a laugh.

Despite the demanding workload, she has continued to travel, completing several of her Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences (APPE) across the country. She excelled in her rotations with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. and the Food and Drug Administration in Silver Spring, Md.

“It was hard to juggle it all and I sometimes do wonder if it was all worth it,” Nham says. “But if I’m able to help patients with my knowledge and expertise, then that’s invaluable.”

A Commitment to Underserved Populations

Time and time again, Nham has carved her own path. After graduating in May, instead of completing a residency at Kaiser Permanente — where she has worked as a pharmacy intern for the past four years — she has chosen a residency with Indian Health Service, a federal program that assists American Indians and Alaska Natives, which comes with a significant pay cut. Her new home base is in Whitewater, Ariz., within the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Navajo County. The closest city is more than a three-hour drive away.

“I think it’ll be a humbling experience,” Nham says. “The American Indians and Alaska Natives have so many barriers against them in terms of accessing good health; you really have to deal with all the other challenges they’re facing and assess each patient holistically.”

Although she has wrestled with the decision over the past year for financial reasons, she is prioritizing her passion to work with underprivileged populations.

Eventually she plans to work as an ambulatory care pharmacist and potentially in a public health organization, where she can make a big impact.

“Amy has always been guided by her passion to serve the health needs of the underserved,” says Susie Park, associate dean for student affairs at the USC School of Pharmacy. “In the truest sense, she embodies the Oath of a Pharmacist.”