Ryan Nguyen never dreamed that by 15, he’d be accepted at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), and starting as a first-year MD student at age 16.
“I wasn’t the best student in middle school, but I had an excitement for science and research at that time,” said the now 18-year-old, second-year JABSOM student and aspiring orthopedics physician.
Growing up in Honolulu, Nguyen’s childhood was similar to his peers.
“I read a ton of books, played a lot of video games,” he said. “My childhood was not too abnormal, but I did a lot of reading. I read Redwall, Artemis Fowl. A lot of young adult fiction, like Harry Potter.”
Accelerated educational path
While many of his interests aligned with his friends attending Niu Valley Middle School, Nguyen’s passion for science set him apart and eventually accelerated his educational path.
“I was given the opportunity, especially in biology, to learn at an early age. For me, that was my chance to express myself and really do something that I cared about and felt was tangible,” he said. “In middle school, everything felt a little more abstract. I didn’t feel like I was making progress, and I didn’t feel any motivation or drive to excel, even if I could. I feel like that’s something a lot of younger students struggle with nowadays, so I’m glad I had the chance to work at something I actually like.”
I have zero regrets. This has been awesome for me, pretty much what I always wanted and exactly what I thought it would be in many ways.
At 11 years old, Nguyen started classes at Kapiʻolani Community College. Surrounded by students in their late teens and early 20s, it was initially daunting.
“When I was starting undergrad at Kapiʻolani CC, there was a bit of curiosity in my classmates,” Nguyen recalled. “I was worried they’d see me as a weird thing not to be interacted with, but honestly, everyone was super nice and kind. I really warmed up to people within my second and third semesters.”
Nguyen took undergraduate classes at the UH Mānoa and Kapiʻolani CC with the initial plan of doing research.
“I feel like I was a biology major who wanted to do the stereotypical biology path like do research, that type of thing. I enjoyed that part, but I also feel like I really liked the application, and whenever pathophysiology (processes associated with disease or injury) showed up in classes, I really had a good time,” he said.
By the time he was wrapping up his bachelor of science at UH Mānoa, Nguyen was 15. He tested out of Kaiser High School by doing an equivalency test similar to a GED.
Doogie Howser, M.D. parallels
Nguyen decided he wanted to pursue a medical career and applied to JABSOM. At 16, he started classes as a first-year medical student.
“There was definitely a bit of acclimation. It’s a sort of different environment,” Nguyen said. “Professional in some ways, informal in other ways, especially when considering the medical school environment in general, but all my peers, they’re all super awesome.”
Nguyen’s path to an MD can be compared to the popular 90s show, Doogie Howser, M.D., which chronicled the fictional teenage physician. When Nyugen started his medical school journey, Disney+ decided to remake the hit show. The reboot Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. is based in Hawaiʻi—often just feet away as JABSOM and the neighboring UH Cancer Center act as essential filming locations.
Often asked about similarities of Doogie, Nguyen said, “Honestly, I feel like it always cracks me up. There’s never been a time where I haven’t laughed at it. I have not watched the show, but I’ve read a little about it on Wikipedia.”
Similar to Doogie, Nguyen often leans on his non-medical school friends to balance the stress of the high pressure medical environment.
“It helps definitely to have someone who’s an outsider looking in and from a support aspect, and having someone to rant to or lean on has been really nice,” he said.
Nguyen also understands the many benefits of being one of the youngest to train. “I feel like I can relate more to younger patients. I’m glad that I get to work with people around my age, whose struggles I’m able to understand and relate with,” he said. “Perhaps if they see a younger face, they might be able to open up a little more.”
While Nguyen admits there are parts of the teenage experience he missed, “I have zero regrets,” he said. “This has been awesome for me, pretty much what I always wanted and exactly what I thought it would be in many ways. I would say that you take a little less time to be a young person, when you’re starting a little bit earlier. I know I haven’t been afforded that, but I think the trade-offs and things I’ve chosen in that regard have been more than worth it.”