Dressed in a server’s black apron and white shirt, Monglan Thi Nguyen piled extra lunch meat on top of American cheese and offered a tomato and a smile to a waiting student.
The student may never have guessed that the Eickhoff food server is a vegetarian, or that she was a doctor when she lived in Vietnam 12 years ago.
“She loves all the children here, so she tries to do her best so they can enjoy their sandwich and go to class,” Eickhoff food server Kim Nguyen, her husband, said.
Together, the Nguyens have 437 fans in two thefacebook.com groups, “I Love the Asian Lady who makes the Sandwiches in Eickhoff :)” and “I ALSO Love the Asian Man (Kim) In Eichoff Who Makes Sandwiches.” (sic) The groups’ pages are laced with tales of friendly encounters and tidbits of the couple’s life story.
The medical profession requires extensive use of the hands, so some skills transferred over to her sandwich-making job in America, Monglan Thi Nguyen said in an interview translated by freshman chemistry major Thanh Le. The Vietnam native understands English, but is more comfortable speaking Vietnamese.
The double-licensed doctor is especially careful not to use moldy bread for her sandwiches, because she wants to ensure the sandwich is sanitary, she said. In addition to her friendliness, it is one of the reasons students form long lines in front of her sandwich station.
“She … does little things (like not giving you the bad tomatoes or the wilted lettuce) and it makes people feel good,” Meghan Bermudez, freshman psychology and education for the deaf and hard of hearing major, wrote in a thefacebook.com message. Bermudez is president and founder of Nguyen’s thefacebook.com group.
In Vietnam, however, the licenses to administer medical care and make special remedies were put to their intended use. After growing up in a well-off family that took people in to care for them, she volunteered with other doctors to care for neighbors.
Then, imprisoned by communists for four-and-a-half years, she administered medical care and said she was treated well during her sentence.
After her husband served 10 years in prison for helping the United States resist the communists as a pilot in the Vietnam War, the family took advantage of a deal from the American government to immigrate to the United States.
“We came here for freedom and a better life,” Kim Nguyen said.
While the two were in prison, Monglan Nguyen’s mother cared for their first daughter, who is now 34 years old. Their second daughter was young, born after Kim Nguyen was released. When the couple was preparing to move to the United States, Monglan Nguyen hesitated.
There was a bad omen, she said. They were to travel over the water, and she had thoughts of her family drowning. She held back a little while, but eventually decided to come to the United States, entering her second child into the second grade at an American elementary school.
Once a shy, intelligent student in a northern Vietnamese high school, Monglan Nguyen earned a scholarship to study in the United States after graduation, she said. Her grandmother fell ill, though, and she was unable to leave her. Instead, she pursued her doctor’s licenses at a southern Vietnamese school in Saigon.
After finally arriving with her husband and two children in the United States in 1993, Monglan Nguyen earned a degree in communication from Mercer County Community College.
Her 19-year-old daughter is now a freshman at the same school, but will transfer her credits to the College in two years, the Nguyens said.
Now, Monglan Nguyen said she is waiting for a good omen to visit Vietnam. She said she carries the good parts of her country with her, but she likes the freedom here that Vietnam does not yet have as a communist state.
Meanwhile, she sends her earnings back to the country to help the elderly and for building tunnels. She said her commitment to this service is a result of a deep religion, her own combination of Buddhism and Christianity.
When she was little, Monglan Nguyen said she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, who told her that animals are living, just like people, and it would be cruel to murder them.
Although she is scared of meat, her love for students enables her to handle the cold cuts of turkey, ham and bologna to construct sandwiches such as what one student in thefacebook.com group called a “STRONGMAN SANDWICH.”
She said she does not mind making sandwiches after being a doctor, because every time she sees someone’s smile, all the work feels worthwhile and her life seems meaningful.