The Once-in-a-Lifetime Story of Annie Nguyen

The UW Tacoma Lecturer has a powerful story to tell and is using her experience to help students find their voice.

“Until that point I had never really thought of myself as different,” says UW Tacoma Lecturer Annie Nguyen. She is describing a moment from her childhood that changed her life, one that ultimately lead her to become more civically engaged and committed to helping others succeed.

In late April of 1975, Nguyen’s parents and older brother fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. Nguyen’s father was a captain in the South Vietnamese Navy and had made connections with the US military, a relationship that proved beneficial in the chaos that followed the city’s capture. “Had anything been out of place they wouldn’t have made it,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen’s parents were granted refugee status and relocated to Arkansas. They were sponsored by a family who helped them access resources and settle into their new life, which included jobs as laborers on a chicken farm. “The work was grueling,” said Nguyen.

Her parents moved to Alabama in 1977 for better opportunities and to be part of a growing Vietnamese community in that state. Her mother, who had been a schoolteacher in Vietnam, worked as a waitress and a nanny to support the family while Nguyen’s father went back to school. “I can remember helping translate engineering textbooks for my father,” said Nguyen.

Life for the Nguyen family during this time was difficult. Annie’s older brother died in 1981 from a brain aneurysm when she was three years old. Her aunt, who also lived in Alabama, passed away from pneumonia a few years later. 

For Nguyen, these tragedies highlighted larger issues. “We didn’t have health insurance and I wonder if things would have been different if we had some kind of preventative care,” she said. 

Despite the struggle, things did slowly improve for Nguyen and her family. Her father earned degrees from the University of South Alabama in mechanical and electrical engineering. Not long after graduation, he took a position as an engineer aboard a US Navy research vessel.

"It’s exciting to think that I might be able to write more pieces that shed light on my experiences as the child of refugees, as a writing instructor or as someone who’s worked with at-risk communities for a long time,” Annie Nguyen.

Nguyen, who was born in Mobile, Alabama, says she never felt out of place in her home state. “I wasn’t bullied or teased that much in school and when I was I thought of those incidents as outliers,” she said.

Her perspective changed one Sunday morning in 1988. Nguyen and her family were on the way to church when they happened upon their dog lying in the road. “He had been shot,” said Nguyen. The family suspected a neighbor had killed the dog. This same neighbor had threatened both the family and the dog in the past. “I asked my father if he was going to do something and he said there was ‘nothing we could do’ and that ‘we were lucky it was just the dog,’’ said Nguyen. “That was a turning point for me and I started paying attention to what was going on in the world around me.”

This ugly moment laid the groundwork for who Nguyen is today. Nguyen’s father, far from being powerless, impressed upon his daughter the value of voting. This belief in the fundamental principles of democracy led Nguyen to get involved with the YMCA’s Youth and Government Program. “I learned about things like how to write a bill and how to defend a viewpoint,” she said.

Nguyen’s passion for governance steered her to George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and a bachelor’s in political communication. “Many of the things that happened in our family’s history were a direct impact of various policies,” she said.  Nguyen’s choice of major also reflects a lifelong interest in writing. “Growing up in Alabama I was always looking for other worlds or other ways of thinking about situations,” she said.  “It wasn’t until I started working on my own writing that I understood its potential as a tool for communicating.”

Following graduation, Nguyen spent time in Vietnam as a Fulbright scholar where she taught writing to English language learners. Teaching and advocacy are hallmarks of Nguyen’s professional life. She has worked as a grant writer for different non-profit agencies including St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore and the National 4-H Council. “Working with these non-profit organizations allowed me to see the real-life implications of different policies,” said Nguyen.

This perspective informs Nguyen’s approach to teaching. Before coming to UW Tacoma in the fall of 2016, Nguyen taught at different institutions including Edmonds Community College and the Community College of Baltimore County. No matter the location, Nguyen’s core mission is the same. “I think that identity and how identity shapes writing is something I focus on quite a bit,” she said. “I hope that students gain some insight about how to talk about their experiences through writing.”

Nguyen primarily teaches introductory writing courses at UW Tacoma. A common struggle beginning writers have is finding something to talk about. Nguyen uses a quote from one of her former instructors as guidance: “‘There are only two types of stories, the ones that happen once in a lifetime and the ones that happen every day.’  I think this is a good way to help students understand the value of both types of stories and to see that material can come from anywhere.”

Nguyen’s material comes from her own life and she’s begun telling her story in different outlets, including HuffPost. Nguyen hopes sharing her story will help create common ground. “I feel that people are too quick to back up their points or state why they’re right,” she said. “I think we’d be more successful if we listened to each other and from this shared area of respect or understanding we could start talking about other issues where we might not agree.”

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Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / April 27, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu