By Jessica Resendez
A barefoot, soft-spoken, spirited young girl scurries along the halls of ASUCI. Zooming past the copy machine, the Reggaefest posters, the Wayzgoose posters, and into a room filled with colored walls, comfy couches, and lively chatter. She stops to say hi to a few of her ASUCI friends and sits crossed-legged on the floor as the group’s mental health commissioner. From where she rests, a tattoo on her left foot is visible—something written in Vietnamese lettering, something that translates to “unconditional love.” It’s a message that reminds her of her roots—cultural roots that stem out as if from the beginning of her life. A time when her mother was alive, a time when her brother was well, and a time when she was only three, playing in her family’s yard.
Caroline Nguyen remembers her mother’s garden the most out of all her childhood memories. The fruit trees, the hydrangeas, the roses, the birds of paradise. There was even a carved path, specifically built for her and her older brother, to ride around in bikes and play in the California sun. A mother’s dream—to have a house of her own, raise kids, and plant a garden. Even the city was magical, with a name like Garden Grove. It was a long way from Vietnam, but Caroline’s mother had accomplished it all on her own and Caroline was proud of that.
Seasons passed, tides changed, the thunderstorm of rain and emotional pain beckoned at her doorstep.
At the age of 14, Caroline learned that her brother had developed a chronic mental illness: schizophrenia. In simple terms it means that he suffers from mental fragmentation—a type of disconnect between reality and fantasy. His senses, his perception, his own emotional behavior are all subject to prescribed medications that often leave him with side effects that “disrupts his cognitive and motor expression,” according to Caroline.
Scared, worried, confused at what to think, how to act around her brother, she realized that his mental illness was an opportunity for her to better understand, “how to portray all parts of [her] brother’s multifaceted life.”
Still, in 2010 things got worse. The sudden passing of her mother left her feeling depressed. She had to take on the role of both loving sister and compassionate mother to help care for herself and her brother. Eventually she moved out and found a place right behind her mother’s garden, but with new owners buying and moving into her mother’s old house, she watched as they tore down the trees, the flowers, the shrubs, and washed it away with nothing but stone-cold concrete.
It was during this time that Caroline decided to grab her keys, hop in her white Camry, and drive eastbound toward the rising sun. She didn’t stop until she found the sand-covered, red-toned, mountains of the Arizona desert. In hikeable places along hidden creeks, among cacti and Southwestern-inspired beauty, she sat there, often alone, and found peace.
Perhaps it was the arid climate brushing through her copper hair in Sedona. Or perhaps it was the stillness of life without a phone signal in the Grand Canyon. Out here, this was her sanctuary.
“Road trips saved my life,” said Nguyen.
After taking a few years off of school and doing a bit of traveling, Caroline decided to come back to UCI as a student and mental health commissioner for ASUCI.
“Part of me always wanted to do mental health work, but I felt like it didn’t have enough of a presence in the UC community yet. Now I’m really glad that it does,” said Nguyen.
Through her work, Caroline has helped coordinate quarterly events and workshops to address misconceptions and stigmas associated with mental health across multiple UC campuses. Her political work on campus and beyond involves advocating for mental health through a social justice perspective – encouraging mental health reform policies and discussions amongst students and faculty.
Currently busy getting ready for a “Mind, Art, and Soul” event in March that focuses on art as a means of expression, she wants to encourage students to use art as a form of coping. With around six different vibrant tattoos, Caroline’s most notable artistic escape is through the colorful ink painted across her legs and feet; her favorite being the garden inspired ensemble on her right thigh.
“This entire tattoo is like my mom: her jewelry, her craft, her garden,” says Nguyen.
On the day of her future wedding, Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel will be playing in the background with its plucky violin and soft piano melody. It is her favorite instrumental song from childhood. Her golden skin, cheery eyes, and soft smile will be inheriting traces of her mother’s beauty peeking out from beneath her white veil.
Following in the footsteps of her mother, she too will have a house of her own; Somewhere near Berkeley, with a “cool bike,” a cat, a job working for the community, and the continuous love of her brother close by.
“My brother’s virtues run deeper than surface personality traits like “witty” or “enthusiastic.” Rather, his goodness is grounded in his very character, and it manifests as endless patience, generosity, and fierce loyalty to family. He puts me first, second, and third—his own regard for himself comes fourth. He definitely has a lot to contribute to society,” said Nguyen.