Thu Mai could never see the world, or any issue, in black and white. She’s well aware that many things in life are riddled with complexity and can only translate in variants of gray. The prospect of working in that gray complexity to affect positive change is what drew Thu to pursue her major in Health Services Management (HSM). Working in health care will allow her to lean into challenges, putting her squarely in the way of important and multilayered issues. She talks about topics like health insurance and health care access with energy and optimism, knowing that she can apply her education and make a difference in others’ lives.
“I’m very passionate about mission-driven work,” she says. “It’s about the end goal and getting there.”
Thu was born in Vietnam and lived there until the age of 12 when she and her family moved to Minnesota. The cultural shift was intense, though she and her sister were young enough to adjust all right to their new home. For Thu’s parents, it wasn’t as easy.
“My parents don’t speak English very well, so my sister and I handle a lot of the phone calls about health insurance,” Thu says. “The US doesn’t have a perfect health care system, but compare it to other countries like Vietnam and you can see how lucky we are.”
Growing up in Vietnam, and occasionally returning to visit, has given Thu perspective on cultural differences and health care systems. The inequalities she’s seen have motivated her to make a difference. It’s her goal to one day return to Vietnam to start a nonprofit organization, run by women, that provides women’s health care, especially reproductive health.
“When we moved to the US, my mom was able to get health care that she didn’t have in Vietnam. Of course, it would’ve been better if she’d have had access to great health care all along, but she didn’t—especially as a woman,” Thu says. “I’m really interested in providing that access, especially to underrepresented communities. I know it’ll be hard, though. In business and in health care, there’s no one right answer. It’s so complex. How do you find that fine line?”
Pursuing her major in HSM, Thu is able to plunge into those complexities, gaining all the tools she’ll need to navigate public health issues.
A Future in Health Services Management
Thu grew up thinking she would be a doctor one day. It was the path her parents had wanted for her. But as Thu got older, she began thinking hard about what best suited her interests. What she found often surprised both her and her parents.
“There’s a stereotype that kids from Asian families will go to med school and become doctors. There’s another stereotype about Asian women being innocent and submissive and stuff like that. I didn’t fit the mold for either of those stereotypes,” Thu says.
During her junior year in high school, Thu joined the Minnesota National Guard--a six-year commitment. Thu started basic training, learning a lot about leadership and teamwork. She hasn’t looked back. Thu says, “I figured I’d join the military as a way to explore. I love being spontaneous, I love a good challenge, and I love the unknown—that’s why I joined.”
Disproving one stereotype, she moved on to the next. While she did start to take the initial science coursework necessary to pursue a future as a physician, she determined it was not the path for her. “By my junior year at the U, I realized I couldn’t do pre-med anymore. I was so depressed. I started taking business classes, and that’s how I found the HSM major.”
The HSM major was the perfect blend of health care and business. It would afford Thu the chance to continue working in the realm of health care, but it pivoted her focus to administration, business, and systems-wide policy decision making that affects how health care works. She knew this major would better enable her long-term goal of making a positive impact on women’s health care in Vietnam, too.
“I realized that being a physician is not the only way to provide access to health care,” Thu says. “I found health care administration really interesting—the behind-the-scenes work, negotiating with insurance companies and other organizations in order to provide health care access.”
What’s Next for Thu
This year will be busy for Thu. She will complete her training with the National Guard in April, and in the fall she will complete her degree. After graduation, Thu thinks she may travel to Vietnam to enjoy a break from school. But when she returns, she’ll hit the books again, preparing for the GRE exam.
“I’m planning on applying for a dual MHA and MBA here at the U of M,” Thu says. “I’ll take a year to work after graduation, and during that time I’ll wait to hear if I get into the program.”
She also anticipates an opportunity to conduct research connected to public health and women’s health, part of the McNair Research project she’s applied to. She hopes to do this research in partnership with a local women’s health organization.
Thu is thoughtful as she shares her post-graduation plans and her ambitions for a career in health services management. “My mom always says if we hadn’t moved here, I’d probably be on the street in Vietnam selling some fake shoes,” she says. “For me to sit here and share my goals—to even have goals—I have a lot of gratitude for that. And I want to give that back in whatever ways I possibly can.”
With her perspective and drive to embrace complexity, Thu is bound to accomplish a lot. As she succinctly and elegantly stated, it’s about the end goal and getting there.
Thu Mai is a recipient of the College of Continuing and Professional Studies Scholarship.