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One student’s journey to self-discovery

04/23/15 - BOSTON, MA. - Fulbright Award Recipient Uyen-Chi "Olivia" Nguyen, DMSB'15, during the Academic Honors Convocation in Blackman Auditorium, where members of the extended Northeastern University community celebrated the highest achievements of students, faculty, and staff. Staff Photo: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern University alumna Olivia Nguyen is a first-generation Vietnamese-American, born in New Jersey and raised by parents who migrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s. She is unfamiliar with many of Vietnam’s customs, she says, and has never visited the country.

“I grew up speaking Vietnamese,” she explains, “but my language skills began to dwindle in school, when my primary mode of communication switched to English. Now I feel disconnected with my Vietnamese identity because of this language gap.”

Nguyen, DMSB’15, held dated opinions of her parents’ homeland until she arrived at Northeastern in the fall of 2011. Here, she befriended a group of international students from Vietnam who spoke highly of the country’s push to industrialize and kindled in her a longing to explore her heritage.

That longing compelled her to apply to the 2015-2016 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Program in Vietnam, which, she hoped, would help her “understand who I am, where I came from, and where I am going.” She got the good news spring, notified of her acceptance into the prestigious program on April 17 at precisely 4 p.m.

The date and time of the notification have stuck with her, she says, and will remain etched in her mind for life. “I’ve memorized the time,” she explains, “because the honor was so monumental for me.”

‘More independent, open, and culturally aware’
Nguyen will spend 10 months in Vietnam, picking up and moving to Southeast Asia at the end of July. She will take a monthlong crash course in Vietnamese culture, language, and history in the capital city of Hanoi, and then travel some 100 miles north to Yen Bai, an agricultural-based province known for its farming and forestry. There, she will work to strengthen the English language skills of hundreds of gifted students at the Nguyen Tat Thanh High School while providing insights on American culture.

Nguyen noted that she is well prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, saying that her experiential-learning opportunities at Northeastern have shaped her teaching strategies and boosted her comfort level in unfamiliar countries. Her international experiences—including her co-op with an independent music publisher in London and her semester abroad at Lancaster University Management School—have proved particularly beneficial, enhancing her cultural competence.

“These experiences have made me much more independent, open, and culturally aware,” says Nguyen, who recently graduated from the Bachelor of Science in International Business program. “I’ve been immersed in environments where I don’t know anyone, which has forced me to be proactive and pursue new relationships.”

Her communications co-op with Orbis International, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to worldwide eye care, afforded her the opportunity to visit its program site in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. The experience, she says, disabused her of her first impressions of Africa, which were shaped largely by the Western media, and convinced her of the benefits of leaving her comfort zone.

One of her most applicable experiences took place at LIFT Boston, an advocacy program whose mission is to help community members achieve economic stability and well-being. Working as a client advocate, she helped people solve their problems—one client wanted help applying for a job, another asked for advice for dealing with her child’s preschool teacher—and encouraged them to persevere through difficult times.

“Part of my job as a teacher,” she says, reflecting on how her yearlong volunteer experience at LIFT Boston improved her relationship acumen, “will be to support and inspire my students when their learning becomes tough.”

A diplomatic mission
Nguyen hopes that her teaching experience in Vietnam will help her develop her diplomatic skills for a future career in international business. She plans to hone her expertise in cultural diplomacy by earning two advanced degrees—an MBA as well as a master’s in cultural anthropology—and is currently working on building a travel blog, which she plans to pursue in earnest over the next five years.

She will type up her first blog post from Vietnam and then publish the entry for the world to see on her forthcoming website, which will go live in about a month. “It’s a very open-ended idea, but it’s an ongoing project that I am taking very seriously,” she says of the blog. “I don’t see myself working in the corporate world forever, and this gives me the opportunity to be independent and create professional opportunities I am truly passionate about.”

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