From Adversity to Success - Dr. Hellerslia Shares Her Personal Story in Honor of American Pharmacists Month

In 1979, Van Hellerslia, PharmD fled Vietnam as a refugee. Now, she’s a clinical associate professor at the Temple University School of Pharmacy, assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, and proud mother of three. Among her many professional endeavors, she conducts research to demystify how a person with traditional barriers to learning can manifest success.

Specifically, Dr. Hellerslia looks for associations between environmental and behavioral factors and learning or “student success” outcomes. The students she has taught during her five years and counting at Temple have been dynamic, sustainable sources of inspiration and research subjects.

“Our research has shown that academic success and student well-being are tied to feeling supported by our faculty and administration. A practical way that we can promote the academic success and well-being of our students is to be supportive and caring,” Dr. Hellerslia said.

Notably diverse, the Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) program represents a key study population for Dr. Hellerslia’s research. 69 percent of first-year students identify as other than white, 38 percent were not born in the U.S., 66 percent identify as female, and 70 percent speak a language other than English.

For many, gaining admittance to a U.S.-based PharmD program may have been an unlikely achievement.

Dr. Hellerslia’s personal journey of adversity to success binds her to her quest to better understand her students. She recalls lacking privilege in her childhood, as a double minority - of Asian descent and born and identifying as female - an immigrant from Vietnam, with non-English speaking parents, she lived with limited resources.

“It wasn't until I was in college that I realized how underprivileged I really was. My parents spoke broken English, lacked a college education, and raised me in the inner city of North Philadelphia.”

Every August, Dr. Hellerslia shares her journey story with newly-enrolled PharmD students during P.R.E.P. (Pharmacy Readiness Education Program) Week, acknowledging her relatability to the audience. P.R.E.P Week, which Dr. Hellerslia and colleagues designed under the leadership of the iconic Ina Calligaro, PharmD, senior associate dean for professional programs, gives new students the chance to learn study and life skills to help them succeed in pharmacy school and beyond.

A student reacted to Dr. Hellerslia’s story, “It was really touching and helped me feel more connected as I grew up in a similar way. It's refreshing to see successful people who have made it.”

“Be a purpose driven learner - be a learner that learns for the sake of contributing to the well-being of others,” Dr. Hellerslia advises.

Dr. Hellerslia, her life and career, are symbols of the abundance of opportunities that await all Americans, born or not, from all backgrounds. Pharmacy is a fitting path for all who want to succeed at helping others and have a balance of a financially prosperous career and a rewarding personal life.

Related Story

Read “The Life of a Pharmacist (Who Happens to Be a Vietnam Refugee)” by Carla Carlson published by the American Journal of Hospital Pharmacy 1979. The article refers to Temple University’s assimilation services extended to pharmacists in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.