7 months, 2 graduations: Black Hawk mechanic Ellen Nguyen's family-focused mission

Author: Alan Cesar
This Vietnamese American alumna is working hard to live up to the struggles her parents faced in leaving their home country
Ellen Nguyen (BSAAE '22, MSAAE '22)

With her mother, Hoa, in mind, Ellen Nguyen started taking summer classes in her freshman year. She wanted to finish her AAE degrees quickly and get to work.

“For all of my years at Purdue, I pined to have a job and home to provide and care for my mom, a woman who had spent her retirement savings over a decade ago just to send both my sister and I to private school,” Ellen says. “I wanted to receive my degree as early as possible for the chance to begin to provide for her.”

She had been eyeing a job in missile guidance at Lockheed Martin's facility in Dallas. Working as a Black Hawk mechanic for the Army National Guard, Ellen wanted to stay close to the military; With Hoa battling after-effects from COVID-19, the Texas climate would be much kinder than Boston's.

When graduation came around for her bachelor's degree, Ellen was offered a job at Lockheed Martin — with a catch. It was a high-security job that couldn't be done remotely. She couldn't start the job while finishing the AAE 5-year combined BS/MS program. But she could still walk away with her bachelor's.

She had to choose: Take the job and leave the program, or pass on the offer she'd been waiting for and finish her master’s degree.

On advice from a senior manager at the company, Ellen invested in her future. The advanced degree would improve promotion opportunities in her career, and she knew she could keep up the pace a bit longer. 

“I desperately wanted to be at Lockheed — it was a dream come true for me and a position that I never fathomed turning my back on,” she says. “I made a resolution to decline my entry-level offer, front-load my classes to graduate early, and speak to Lockheed again for a Level 2 position in the subsequent months without making them wait a full year for me to come around.”

Portrait of Ellen Nguyen on the Purdue campus, with trees in full fall colors behind her.

Setting the pace

That trip toward her master's degree took just 7 months. She had paid close attention to the rules for the master’s program: She knew which courses would or wouldn’t transfer for her master’s, and what would count toward both degrees. Earning both degrees took her just 4.5 years — and could've been even shorter, she says, if she'd not also picked up a computer science minor.

Ellen also held down internships each summer alongside her courses and managed good grades throughout her academic journey, frequenting the Dean's List and receiving semester honors. She did all this while serving a five-year commitment to the Army National Guard as a helicopter mechanic.

The extreme load was deliberate: Ellen structures her work in a way she finds invigorating.

"I have always thrived off having a large checklist of responsibilities, as long as each responsibility is different and unique from the next. For me, having a diverse set of responsibilities makes me feel productive without draining me, and each task gives me a break from the other," Ellen says. "I have found that hard work, ambition, and experience is the holy grail to a successful engineer."

Morgan Delaney, administrator for AAE's graduate program, says Ellen's dedication to completing both degrees so quickly is unusual. "The program is structured around needing at least one additional year [beyond the bachelor's degree], and most take that. It is rare for students to finish this quickly. I've only had a handful that have done that," Morgan says.

In the fall of 2022, Ellen met her two goals: She snatched another opportunity at Lockheed Martin, and had just enough time remaining to refocus her master’s research for the tail end of her academic studies. “Missile dynamics and controls made up the majority of my research and work in the last few months, after having been hired by Lockheed for my position. It has helped me to feel more comfortable at work with understanding the behavior of missile flight.”

Ellen Nguyen and her mother on December 17, 2022 — the day Ellen earned her master's degree.

Paying forward generational sacrifice

Ellen’s need to squeeze all the juice from every situation has been a lifelong desire. She has to honor what her parents gave up, and the work they put in, to get her to each step.

“My parents came to America in the ‘80s — my dad 1980, my mom 1988. Both of them have incredible escape stories,” Ellen says. “They built the American dream for themselves here in the real estate business. My sister and I are the first in my entire extended family to be born in the states and go to college.”

“I feel blessed that I am where I am today because of their sacrifice.

Over time, Ellen’s parents brought most of their extended family to the U.S. She hopes to help bring the rest of them over, especially her youngest cousins. Ellen says here they would grow up in a safer, healthier environment and access to a formal education system not available in Vietnam.

“For my family members still in Vietnam, their wage in one month is less than what I might make in a day. The starvation there, the inability to feed your children is very real.”

Ellen Nguyen flanked by her mother, Hoa, and sister, Danielle, on May 13, 2022 — the day Ellen earned her bachelor's degree from the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Exploring drones and learning to love code

Her new career as an engineer on guidance, navigation and controls for missile systems is a natural extension of the autonomy and controls specialization Ellen chose at Purdue.

A love of coding sprouted from first experiences with unmanned aircraft in a Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) course with PURT director James Goppert. On advice from her older sister, Danielle, Ellen picked up a computer science minor. That became a gateway to friendships with other students specializing in autonomy and control (A&C).

“I leaned as heavily towards software as possible within AAE. The group of A&C students that I became friends with were very like-minded,” she says. “We all felt the most comfortable as programmers and working with anything that involved code.”

She also took part in associate professor Alexey Shashurin’s TracSat design-build-test course, working on the object surveillance subsystem for a cubesat the class built. These hands-on classroom experiences helped her to get an internship at General Atomics, and later at Jacobs, a contractor working at NASA’s Marshall Space & Flight Center.

With her drone work and National Guard experience, Ellen searched for a career that aligned with the military.

“The biggest help that I’ve had in terms of tuition has come from being in the Army. They were able to fund 100% of my undergraduate tuition and I am more than grateful. I still consider my enlistment one of the best decisions that I have made so far in my life, and I would do it again.”

Publish date: May 25, 2023
Author: Alan Cesar