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Alumni Michelle Duong: Solve for Tomorrow Lit In Me a Fire for Giving Back



Name:Michelle Duong
Today:Making a career pivot to pursue a degree as a Physician’s Assistant
Plans for Tomorrow:“Get closer to the people I’m helping” – an aspiration Michelle developed during the course of her Samsung Solve for Tomorrow experience
Ties to Samsung Solve for Tomorrow:As a High School sophomore at Eastside San Jose’s Downtown College Preparatory School, Michelle was a 2014/2015 Solve for Tomorrow National Winner, part of Downtown’s student team that developed a “grey water” recovery system for residential home use. Four and five years later, during Solve for Tomorrow Years 11and 12 (2019/2020 and 2020/2021), Michelle returned as an Alumni mentor – helping teams prepare for their final pitch presentations. She describes that role as “Awesome – being on the other side of the table and sharing with students my own experiences with the competition and life after the big day.”
What was your path from Samsung Solve for Tomorrow STEM competition winner to where you are today?

I really started on that path before formally entering Samsung Solve for Tomorrow. Our Engineering and Math teacher Mr. Ruelas proposed entering the competition in spite of the doubts our class had about being capable of competing at that national level. As students who didn’t have a lot of resources, we learned to be resourceful with what we had when building our project. And it inspired the confidence that each of us was indeed capable, believing that “I can and I WILL” succeed. Solve for Tomorrow opened so many doors for me. It really changed how I thought about things after the competition had ended.

I know that if not for that chance I took, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I didn’t have a lot of role models in the community growing up and Solve for Tomorrow introduced me to so many successful people who were so supportive. After high school and starting college, there was a period when I felt a little lost with school and life. But thanks to the Solve for Tomorrow experience and the introduction to the world of STEM, I was able to focus my “I can and I WILL” confidence to study cardio science and health tech in college, to graduate and secure a position as a User Experience (UX) researcher and designer for the non-profit UNICEF. There, I was able to live the dream of helping people by taking user input to develop solutions that improved their interactions with health services and products.

Like many of my peers, when COVID came it made me take a hard look at my life, at what I was doing, and at my future. Looking ahead, I knew I wanted to act on the spirit of giving back to the community that Solve for Tomorrow had sparked in me. And I wanted to get closer to the people I’m helping than I could in my UX role. So, I decided to take a 180 degree turn in my career and am going back to school to be a Physicians’ Assistant. That will be the next stage of my career.

Tell us about the origin of the “grey water” project.

California may have gotten a reprieve from the most severe drought – but it’s clear that for California and for all the Southwest, water use and water scarcity is going to remain an issue. That was the origin of Downtown College Preparatory School’s Grey Water project. California was experiencing severe drought at that time. Some of the most impacted communities are those like Eastside San Jose, where many residents had large or multigenerational families living under one roof, who would have difficulty limiting water use. Those disadvantaged communities can least afford the high cost of water or the high fines for exceeding water use mandates.


At the same time, a large portion of household water is wasted – or at least underutilized. “Grey Water” – water used in the kitchen, doing laundry, taking showers and baths – can be captured, filtered, and sanitized fairly easily, and used to water gardens, yards, and crops, instead of being run through costly municipal water treatment facilities and/or dumped into the ocean. Using materials available at local hardware stores, our class designed a system that we built in Mr. Ruelas’s backyard. With a little plumbing work, it processed “grey water” to use in the garden or for other secondary uses in place of costly “city water.”

What’s the most important thing you learned or took away from Samsung Solve for Tomorrow?

Solve for Tomorrow really taught me two key lessons. First, that belief that “I can and I WILL” – which has guided my life since participating in Solve for Tomorrow and is guiding me now that I’m making a new career shift. For the second lesson, the STEM competition really lit the fire in me to give back. It showed me the importance of helping support my community in any way possible.

Something else I learned was how important it can be for an under-resourced school like Downtown College Preparatory School to participate in a program like Solve for Tomorrow. First, we got to experience the support of our school and community, which rallied together with fund raising so we could build our grey water system and demonstrate that it worked. Then, as we moved up through the competition all the way to National Winner, we were really able to give back. With our Solve for Tomorrow prize, the school was able to get Chromebooks and other classroom technology. It really helped Mr. Ruelas build the engineering department. That was tremendously important for us.

What’s your advice to STEM students and teachers who might consider entering Samsung Solve for Tomorrow next year?

Do it. You have to take advantage of chances when you have them. They may not come around again. Just believe that “I can and I WILL” – and have the confidence to know that you can indeed do things, that you can succeed. And stay focused on what you can give back to your community.

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