They dreamt it; they did it

Three high-achieving UND students snatch competitive national opportunities to further their interests

From left: Ashly Hanna, Michelle Nguyen and Ryan Gilbertson share a proclivity to flourish in and outside of the classroom, which has made them recipients and finalists for prestigious national scholarships. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

March 27 marked Ashly Hanna’s 20th birthday.

It was also the day a long-awaited email landed in her inbox. About 3 pm that Wednesday, right after a class, she opened it – she had been accepted to a prestigious criminal justice summer program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“It was adrenaline all day – I couldn’t contain my happiness,” said Hanna, who is a sophomore at the University of North Dakota pursuing criminal justice and American Indian studies.

She is one of 10 students from across the nation to partake in the Crime Analytics Summer Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. In late May, Hanna will head to the Charlotte campus for a 10-week immersion into how past criminality, race, age and gender affect employment.

The project will allow Hanna to delve into what she loves – research – after an academic year that tugged her into other directions.

As the president of the Indian Studies Association, Hanna, a Hunkpapa Lakota, oversaw the laborious preparations for Time Out Week, which, in mid-April, concluded with a community-wide powwow.

“If I [was] not in class, I [was] usually working on my organization stuff, planning for Time Out Week and then trying to fit in the work,” said Hanna. “It [was] back-to-back.”

Yet, despite her many responsibilities, including a research assistanceship with criminal justice professor Wendelin Hume, she carved out the time to put together an extensive application package that prodded her identity, ambitions and research aptitude.

Daunting but not solitary

As daunting as such an endeavor may sound, Hanna did not tackle it alone. She leaned on the expertise of UND’s Academic Affairs officers, who helped her select research opportunities and prepare competitive entries for them.

“It is my job to understand what the University has to offer, what nationally is available and how to get [students at any academic level] there,” said Yee Han Chu, fellowship coordinator, who encourages students to seek her support in parsing the myriad of options for academic and professional growth.

Hanna went to Chu with a worry. Still just a sophomore, she had done very little research at UND and had no experience in the analytical software the project is to utilize.

Chu and several other advisors focused Hanna on her strengths – her participation in the McNair Scholarship Program, which prepares undergraduate students for doctoral degrees, being one.

This summer Hanna is heading to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she will join 9 other students to complete a criminal justice program. Later on she is to travel to Arizona as part of her Udall scholarship. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

Hanna also thinks that her fervid account of meeting and introducing on stage author Tommy Orange during the recent UND Writers Conference helped her earn the coveted spot during a finalist interview.

“[The interviewer] didn’t just care about my work ethic but who I was as an individual,” she said.

And, as a person, Hanna is a lot of things – a diligent, rising young professional who wants to study recidivism in Native American populations; a doting sister who says her younger brother motivates her; a young Indigenous woman who is learning her roots.

When she got the fateful email, Hanna quickly called her father, who lives in Colorado and was the only one in the family to know she had applied. Then, Hanna face-timed her brother, Michael, to break the news, which could mean she may miss his high-school graduation – a possibility the program organizers have since said “they would hate.”

Still, Hanna said that, despite the current arrangement to attend, her resignation to potentially not witness her brother’s milestone shows how deeply she aspired for the summer program.

Recently, Hanna also became the second UND student to have ever been named a Udall scholar, a recognition that fosters careers in tribal public policy and is to take her to Arizona later in the summer.

Drive to excel  

Much like Hanna, Michelle Nguyen was going about her day – at the time updating computers in the Law School – when her phone pinged with an email. It had taken so long for it to arrive that for a second she doubted its authenticity.

A first-generation student with diverse talents, Nguyen did not believe, at first, she had received the Dream Award when a congratulatory email came in while she was at work at the Law School. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

“It was like, ‘Congratulations’ and I [thought], “Uh, this looks like a spam email,’” said Nguyen, a junior, majoring in political science and economics. “I clicked on it and I was like, ‘What!’”

Having worked with Chu to identify potential funding resources, she had received the Dream Award of Scholarship America, a $10,000 renewable grant.

Nguyen ran to tell colleagues and friends before dialing her mother.

It was news of thrill and pride – but also of relief. Hailing from a hard-working immigrant family with modest means, Nguyen had taken on financial aid and campus jobs to pay for school – but it was not enough. Earlier this year, she searched for more support while the possibility of dropping out loomed.

Once the youngest precinct chair for her district in Minnesota and a key staff member on several state election campaigns, Nguyen dreams of graduate school and a career in international economics and development. Her vim to help others had ushered her to UND and, today, her resiliency keeps her here.

When she needed assistance to stay in the classroom, however, Nguyen, a first-generation student, turned to her mother for inspiration.

“If she doesn’t know something, she would figure it out,” said Nguyen. “She is kind of do it yourself or don’t do it at all. There is barely a time when she doesn’t do it at all. I grew up with that great work ethic where it is hard for me not to want to mirror that.”

Heeding that example, Nguyen not only excels in her studies, she thrives on campus. Once an involved kid, she is now a busy young adult, who is part of UND’s hockey cheerleading squad, the First Generation Student Club, the Pre-Law Society, the business fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi as well as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She also interns in the Law School’s IT office thanks to a proclivity for technology she developed early on, when her parents exposed her and her siblings to various activities.

As a result, Nguyen’s daily schedule begins with the first sun rays and concluded when they are long gone.

“That is why I am so grateful for this scholarship because it could make my days a little less chaotic not having to work every single day of the week and studying instead,” she said.

More imagining, doing

Many were the scholarships Nguyen did not secure but she said applying for them “made me think differently from what I am used to,” about herself, her achievements and her goals.

Ryan Gilbertson echoed that assertion.

A finalist for the Truman Scholarship, Gilbertson heeds a slogan that captures his engagements and aspirations on and off campus. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

A junior, pursuing a dual degree in political science and economics, Gilbertson progressed to the final round of the preeminent Truman Scholarship, a graduate fellowship for rising public service leaders. Although he did not ultimately make the cut, the experience illumed his long-standing dedication to the public sector.

On the pages of his Truman application, change-driving positions in his high school and church in Minneapolis gave way to field and campus roles with former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s reelection campaign in 2018. But these do not encompass Gilbertson’s many deeds with his social fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon, business fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi and the College Democrats, among other organizations.

“I am somebody who is living my life very quickly, trying to get to the next thing very fast and so oftentimes I don’t take a lot of time to reflect on all the good work I have done,” he said, adding that the application, which included several essays, spurred him to appreciate the past and ponder about the future.

Wherever that leads him, though, Gilbertson is following a personal slogan, appropriated from the name of his uncle’s boating crew that, over a decade ago, set sail in a global race. Often, he wears it emblazoned in red letters on an official team cap, one he ferreted out of his closet a couple of years ago.

It reads, “Imagine it. Done.”

If you are or know a student interested in pursuing local and national fellowships, internships and scholarships contact fellowship coordinator Yee Han Chu. For the Truman Scholarship contact political science professor and scholarship coordinator Mark Jendrysik.