Emily Nguyen '10, chemical engineering

Emily Nguyen

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Emily Nguyen is already hard at work.

Tuesday mornings are for making Fritos at the PepsiCo-Frito-Lay plant in Rancho Cucamonga. As an associate operations manager, it’s Nguyen’s job to make sure that the processing and packaging lines are running smoothly. The country needs its Fritos fix.

“I’m not your typical engineer that goes into design work,” she says. “I make chips for a living. I have a pretty fun, pretty exciting career.”

An alumna of the College of Engineering, Nguyen is part of a team that helps make some of the world’s favorite chips: Cheetos, Doritos and other varieties.  Every day, she keeps an eye on the lines, maintains the machinery, helps train new employees and taste tests the chips.

For Nguyen (’10, chemical engineering), the road to her professional success was full of hard work and guidance from mentors. Born in a Malaysian refugee camp, Nguyen moved to the United States with her family when she was 1 and grew up in Torrance. She is a first-generation college student and the oldest of three siblings, and knew higher education was her first steppingstone.

In community college, Nguyen was unsure of what she wanted to pursue. Organic chemistry, however, sparked her interest. Her professor, whom Nguyen counts as a mentor, encouraged her to try chemical engineering, which led her to apply to Cal Poly Pomona.

“I thought making something from nothing was almost like magic,” she says. “A chemist designs on a small scale, but an engineer designs on a large scale. I thought that was a cool concept.”

When she arrived on campus, Nguyen immersed herself in student life. She was president of the Engineering Council, vice president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and a founding member of the engineering sorority Phi Sigma Rho. She attended meetings of some of the Asian cultural organizations on campus, and lived in the University Village for three years. She also found professional staff and faculty to help her navigate her college career.

“I loved the fact that I was able to experience college like a carefree kid, running around and enjoying all these different clubs,” she says. “I really liked how I was able to develop my own leadership. It wasn’t just all about books.”

Nguyen’s interest in professional development helped her land an internship at Anheuser-Busch, which piqued her growing interest in food and manufacturing. At an engineering career fair, she visited the Frito-Lay booth and liked what she saw. As soon as Nguyen graduated, she had a job waiting for her. She just reached her five-year anniversary.

“They had everything I envisioned myself doing,” she says. “I was ready to go.”

Nguyen also credits Cal Poly Pomona for giving her the experiences she needed to be a successful young professional. The public speaking, critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills she learned in clubs and in the classroom helped her feel comfortable giving presentations about processing lines and managing a team.

“All the clubs I was involved in gave me leadership development,” she says. “I wouldn’t be where I am and know how to manage a group of 50 people and communicate with them if I didn’t have that experience.” 

Nguyen is still heavily involved in the university community. She’s spoken at SWE events and is an advisor to Phi Sigma Rho. Nguyen says it’s a chance to mentor female engineering students and encourage them to pursue diverse paths in the industry.   

“If I didn’t do that for someone else, maybe someone struggling like I did, then I didn’t do myself justice,” she says. “That’s why I go back and talk, and that’s why I push for all the girls in SWE or Phi Sigma Rho to come to work here. I am successful, and I should give it back to someone else.”