search button
newscenter logo
Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Follow SDSU Follow SDSU on Twitter Follow SDSU on Facebook SDSU RSS Feed

Nancy Nguyen Nancy Nguyen

A Personal Exploration

SDSU student Nancy Nguyen finds deeper meaning in her study abroad experience in Uganda and Rwanda.
By Michael Klitzing

“It’s difficult and I could not have done it without the institutional support at SDSU.”

For San Diego State University sociology senior Nancy Nguyen, choosing Uganda and Rwanda as her study abroad destinations was the easy part. Breaking the news to her parents? That proved a bit trickier.

Though politically stable now, both countries have troubled histories. Uganda endured the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin in the 1970s and a bloody civil war in the 1980s. Rwanda was the site of an infamous 1994 genocide that killed as many as a million people.

“It just didn’t connect for them,” said the Weber Honors College student. “They said, ‘We left a war-torn area to give you and your siblings better lives, and now you’re entering another war-torn area?’”

Ironically, it was a desire to examine her parents’ experiences as Vietnam War refugees that made Nguyen—who plans to pursue a career related to refugee resettlement and integration—so eager to pack her bags for the Nile Basin.

“I did a lot of reflecting on my personal history. Since my parents came to the United States to escape political persecution, I wanted to analyze that phenomenon in another region.”

As she continues to study in Africa this semester, Nguyen will seek to understand more about the forces that have shaped her own life and understand how she can work to make a positive difference for future victims of war and persecution.

An intense experience

Nguyen arrived in the Ugandan capital of Kampala in late January to begin a program offered through the School for International Training, a U.S.-based international development and education organization. She is studying the economic, political and social development of East Africa, with a focus on Uganda and Rwanda.

Nguyen will visit Rwandan genocide memorials, speak with survivors and families of victims, and complete an internship with either a governmental organization or an NGO.

“I think the Rwandan genocide was a global failure,” Nguyen said. “It’s important to look at it and learn from it and think about how we, the international community, can better support people who are disenfranchised.”

When her program ends in May, Nguyen will be funded by the SDSU College of Education to teach at the Gashora Girls Academy, a Rwandan boarding school that aims to empower young women leaders.

Personal echoes

Nguyen grew up in the lingering shadow of violence and poverty. Her grandfather, Thuc Pham, was imprisoned for a decade by Vietnam’s communist government for aiding the United States during the war. Upon his release, he received refugee status in the United States along with his wife, Dung, and 15-year-old daughter, Be, Nguyen’s mother. Nguyen’s father, Bay Nguyen, was 17 when he escaped Vietnam as one of the so-called “boat people”—the two million refugees who fled after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

Since coming to SDSU from the working-class Northern California community of Pittsburg, Nguyen has seized opportunities to explore her own narrative.

She took part in a Division of Student Affairs assessment of how well SDSU’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), fulfills its mission to serve students from low-income backgrounds and historically underserved communities. She also assisted in a College of Education study into low-income schools that produce high-achieving students. After living in low-income housing as a child, Nguyen is working on an SDSU Research Foundation-funded study, led by School of Public Affairs professor Shawn Flanigan, into public housing policy in San Diego.

Unexpected possibility

Nguyen said she never dreamed any study abroad experience, much less one so attuned to her interests, was possible for her.

“I thought study abroad was only available to people who had money,” she said. “It’s in situations like navigating studying abroad that I am reminded that I’m a first-generation college student. It’s difficult and I could not have done it without the institutional support at SDSU.”

Advised by Chris Kjonaas, associate director for international engagement in the Division of Academic Engagement and Student Achievement, Nguyen has received 10 scholarships totaling more than $40,000.

“Nancy takes advantage of opportunities,” Kjonaas said. “She credits the SDSU community and her mentors for much of her success, but it is her openness to new challenges that has led her to join the Honors College, get involved with research, pursue policy-making internships and get on a plane to Uganda.”

Nguyen hopes to inspire other SDSU students from similar backgrounds to study abroad. She is sharing her experiences in Uganda and Rwanda on her blog on the SDSU Be International page.