When Nikki Nguyen speaks, it is with a voice that is quiet, calming even. She stands less than 5 feet tall, unassuming when she enters a room.
But everything changes when Nguyen drops a beat.
Her skill for vocal percussion – beatboxing – is something she’s honed since she was an undergraduate student at UCLA. Now, the 23-year-old has brought her musical talent – and her aspirations of being a physician – to Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine as a member of the Class of 2020.
“There’s a lot of surprise,” Nguyen said of when others first discover her beatboxing prowess. “Usually, when you imagine a beatboxer, it’s a man … It’s just nice and from the friends I’ve talked to it makes them really check themselves in terms of how they view people because you never know what someone can do.
“Just because you’re a tiny person doesn’t mean you have a tiny voice.”
Beatboxing is a product of Nguyen’s lifelong love of music. Growing up in Orange County, California, she started playing piano at the age of four and that opened the door to learning about a variety of different musical genres.
She said music has served as a way for her to connect with her grandparents, as well as her aunts and uncles. She said she and her siblings, and her cousins, regularly put together performances during family gatherings.
“Over time, especially in high school and college when I started to be more open to learning about my background and culture, I found it was hard to connect to relatives who didn’t speak English so it’s kind of become a tradition and my family kind of sees me as the person from my generation who pulls together all of the generations,” Nguyen said.
As a high schooler, Nguyen said she enjoyed choir and after enrolling at UCLA she and her twin sister joined the AweChords, an a cappella group made up mostly of pre-med students and engineering and science majors.
“I really just tried out on a whim,” Nguyen said. “It’s like choir but smaller and everyone has to be close-knit and their voices have to be close-knit.”
It was after joining the AweChords at UCLA that Nguyen got her first chance to learn how to beatbox. The opportunity came about by chance, she said, after a fellow student and beatboxer in the group was preparing to graduate and took Nguyen and another student under his wing.
“Music is always going to be an integral part of my life,” Nguyen said. “In terms of beatboxing, what’s really nifty about it is, I can do it anywhere.”
Nguyen said the AweChords is one of several a cappella groups at UCLA. Nguyen and her twin sister, also an aspiring doctor who is attending St. George's University in Grenada, were both members of the group.
Nguyen said AweChords is a non-competitive a cappella group that focuses on community service. During her time at UCLA, Nguyen said the group performed at campus events and also visited local middle schools and high schools where music programs had been cut.
Members of the a cappella group befriended the younger students and were able to “be the crutch so that they could have a musical experience.”
The group also, Nguyen said, taught music through China Care Bruins, a mentorship program that fosters relationships between UCLA students and children adopted from China who are living in Southern California. Nguyen said she and other members of the group taught the children music and organized small concerts that the children performed for their parents.
While her stint with the AweChords gave Nguyen a chance to give back to the community, her time as a student at UCLA also laid the groundwork for her pursuit of a MD degree and the path that led her to WMed.
She graduated from UCLA in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology. She said she’s always had an interest in biology and healthcare, and she began exploring different medical fields while at UCLA.
She did volunteer work in college, including spending time at a clinic in Los Angeles that served underserved populations in the community, specifically Hispanic and Asian populations. She also worked as an ER scribe at a Level 1 trauma center in Mission Viejo, California.
All of the experiences, she said, led her to the conclusion that a career as a doctor would be her next pursuit. Later, she applied to WMed and several medical schools in California, as well as George Washington University, the University of North Carolina and Wake Forest University.
She said her decision to apply to WMed came at the urging of her friend, Katherine Han, a second-year student at WMed who worked with Nguyen as an ER scribe in California.
“The students, all of the applicants … everyone here was very open,” said Nguyen, recalling how, during a visit to campus the day before her interview, the maintenance staff offered to give her a tour of the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus.
“Everyone was open and friendly,” she said.
Nguyen arrived as a member of WMed’s Class of 2020 in August. Since her arrival, she has joined – and performed with -- the WMed Choral Group.
What remains to be seen is whether Nguyen will try to start an a cappella group here at WMed. She recalled how, when she interviewed at WMed, she promised Dr. Kelly Quesnelle, assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, that she would start the first-ever a cappella group at WMed, if she was accepted.
“It would be fun, but I’m not sure if it can happen or if people are interested,” Nguyen said. “I need to think of a really clever name. That’s the most important part.”