Before Chau began classes as a first-year student at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), she planned to study pre-medicine. Her mother, a doctor back home in Vietnam, urged Chau to follow in her footsteps. But a secondary school scholarship for international students, as well as her curiosity about city life in the US, brought Chau to Chicago, where she learned to weave her health-centric mission with newfound creativity and entrepreneurialism.
From Hanoi to Chicago
Chau is originally from Hanoi; starting in 11th grade, she attended school in South Carolina and Maine. In Maine, a Shorelight representative came to her school and met with international students, introducing Chau to a scholarship opportunity that she eventually won.
“There were two rounds. They gave us a couple of essay prompts and I chose to write about a leadership experience,” said Chau. “After I won, they flew me to California — from the East Coast to the West Coast — to visit the University of the Pacific. They put me in a nice hotel and I met with representatives from the school. It was really exciting.”
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Chau was impressed with the programming at Pacific and liked the West Coast, but being from an urban environment in Vietnam, Chau was looking for a school with a big city campus.
“When I came to the US for the first time, I was living in very small towns,” said Chau. The experience at Pacific was amazing, but when recruiters from UIC came to her Maine-based high school, Chau knew where she wanted to study.
“When I saw Chicago, I recognized the name and saw it on the news and had heard people talk about Chicago. So I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s, let’s go to Chicago!’”
Discovering a Creative Side in Chicago
Chicago quickly felt like home to Chau. But, despite knowing UIC was the right university, she took more time to find the right course of study.
Her mother had hoped Chau would major in pre-medicine, as she wanted her to become a doctor. At first, this was also Chau’s plan. But with UIC’s flexibility to explore different majors, plus several opportunities to work at a variety of campus jobs, Chau began to consider different possibilities.
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Her first switch was from a pre-med major to public health. Then, things changed again after Chau took a marketing assistant position on campus, working for UIC Global. At first, the job was primarily a way to make money for the first-year undergraduate, but it soon became a calling.
“Once I started working with the marketing coordinator, everything just clicked,” said Chau. “I realized that I can be creative and that I’m kind of liking this stuff!”
New Creative Opportunities after COVID
When COVID hit, marketing roles dried up for students on campus, and Chau lost her position. Fortunately, she had worked in a creative role long enough to discover something about herself that she wanted to embrace — something outside her assumed pre-medicine and public health career paths.
“My general passion for helping people is why I chose public health in the beginning,” said Chau. After working as a marketing assistant at UIC Global, she knew she could apply these new skills to her work in public health — but UIC’s School of Public Health didn’t have concentrations that matched her new skillset. So, Chau worked with advisors to create her own: health marketing and health communication.
Chau began to see new opportunities after weaving her two interests together. And, as COVID made in-person classes, get-togethers with friends, work, and other social happenings problematic, Chau had more time for building her creative portfolio.
“COVID hit, I got laid off, and so that’s when I started investing more time into marketing [and] creative side projects,” said Chau. From Chicago, she was able to work virtually for her mother’s clinic back home, contributing to their website and social media channels. “I just started freelancing for experience, in roles like social media manager. At that time, I didn’t take it seriously, I just did it because quarantine was boring and I wanted to try something different.”
As the quarantine relaxed and normal life resumed at UIC, Chau had newly acquired social media, graphic design, and photography experience to add to her resume. She was also re-hired at UIC Global as a career services ambassador for international students.
“One of the things that I really like… is connecting students with my friends and other students who are in the same major and looking for the same jobs, or have already got the job and have some advice,” said Chau. “I always tell students to start the application process early as it takes time. Don’t rely on just one employer, keep applying and following up properly.”
Chau’s Custom-Made Career
By the time Chau graduated, she had on-campus employment experience as an international student ambassador and a career services representative. She had a public health degree focusing on health marketing and communication. And she also had professional marketing and graphic design experience from various creative side projects. With a resume like that, Chau was in demand. She now works at a Chicago-based firm that combines public relations and communications work, including work for health care-related clients.
“I’m helping people and it still translates,” said Chau. “Now I know that I can help people without only being in the medic[al] space.”
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*Photo credit Dietz Studio