Fulbright scholar escapes Vietnam poverty to earn doctorate at BGSU
Written by JORDAN CRAVENS Sentinel Staff Writer
Wednesday, 07 August 2013 08:38
Extreme poverty is a term An Nguyen is all too familiar with.
|An Nguyen (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
It was the kind of poverty where meat was something Nguyen's North Vietnamese family saw only once a year. The kind of poverty where his widowed mother had to figure out how to feed her entire family on 10 kilograms of rice per month while living in a hut. The kind of poverty where Nguyen had to wrap wire around a pair of beat up old sneakers just so he could work a construction job.
"It was the poorest village in the poorest district in the poorest province in the poorest country - at that time," he said.
But somehow, even with the odds stacked against him and facing political pressures from his home country, Nguyen found a way to educate himself and rise above his once poverty-stricken life.
On Saturday, the 29-year-old Fulbright Scholar will walk across the stage to receive his doctorate in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University.
"It's like coming from hell to heaven," Nguyen said.
"But it's not the poverty I am talking about when I say coming from hell to heaven," Nguyen said. "It's the educational opportunities I had.
"I know a lot of my friends who are extremely smart and never had a chance. They ended up being farmers."
Nguyen grew up in the panhandle of North Vietnam. His father died when he was 3 years old and his family survived on very little. Young Nguyen sold firewood and his mother rolled tobacco to have food on the table.
In 1996, Nguyen was able to earn a bachelor's degree in English from Vietnam National University. After graduation, he worked for a couple of British and Japanese companies as an interpreter.
He later was able to serve as an instructor at a local university, but office politics ended up relegating him to operating a photocopier.
Knowing he was not working to his potential, Nguyen sought an advanced degree.
"I wasn't allowed," Nguyen said.
"I had no other choice but to go study abroad."
Nguyen then entered stiff competition for a Fulbright scholarship. He was one of 700 candidates and endured 10 rounds of competition in 2002.
"I didn't have a lot of hope because it's so tough," Nguyen said.
Even entering the Fulbright scholarship competition was controversial in itself. He had all of his scholarship communication sent to his wife's employer because "if they found the letters at my workplace, they could have destroyed my future."
Nguyen was awarded the Fulbright and came to the U.S. in 2003.
During his first trip here, he earned a master's degree in American Culture Studies before he went back to Vietnam in 2005.
He returned to teaching, but faced pressures from the Vietnamese government for his involvement with the Fulbright program.
"I was kicked around for a while, so I decided to stay home and take care of my baby," he said.
Nguyen then moved his family to Saigon where he taught sociology and humanities and served as director of student development at the Saigon Advanced Institute of Technology
In 2009, he was encouraged Dr. Donald McQuarie, former director of the American Culture Studies program, to return to the U.S. McQuarie was instrumental in helping Nguyen return here and to be accepted into the American Culture Studies Ph.D program.
Nguyen's dissertation, titled "Tickets to America: Vietnamese Immigrants in the New Millennium," was successfully defended in April and focused on young Vietnamese immigrants who came to the U.S. for education or entrepreneurial pursuits.
His advisor, Dr. Sridevi Menon, is known for challenging her students.
"She is tough. So tough that no Americans want to ask her to be their advisor," Nguyen laughed.
Following graduation, Nguyen will move to Arizona where he has accepted a teaching position at a university. He and his wife, Huong, have one daughter, Amy, 10, and a second child on the way.
"It's very important because without this job offer, we would have had to go back home," he said.