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The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University

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May 21, 2017

MS Commencement Speaker: Ly Nguyen, MS’17

Ly Nguyen, MS’17, MS commencement speaker

Good morning Brandeis administration, professors, fellow students, families and friends.

My name is Ly Nguyen, and thank you for giving me this opportunity to share a piece of myself with you all. Thank you especially to my classmates—we’ve worked so hard. It’s been a rigorous nine months of intense schooling and we’ve made it. This is our day. 

To stand here before you is an honor and also an anomaly. You see, I am first generation born in the United States, first generation to graduate college, and today, first generation to receive my Master’s degree alongside my two sisters. I was born and raised in a low-income household in the small state of Vermont. Not many people look like me there; Asian Americans represent only two percent of the population. When people meet me, they often ask, “How did you end up in Vermont?” and that story begins with my parents. 

My mother, from South Korea, and my father, from Vietnam, both immigrated to Vermont in the late 70s.

My mother left South Korea for the United States at the age of 21. She was working at an eyelash factory and knew there was no opportunity for her there. When she saw her chance for a better life in the U.S., she seized it, not even telling her family she was leaving.

My father was born in war. He lost his parents at the age of eight, and as a young man, he served in the South Vietnamese Army in the Second Indochina War fighting alongside the United States. When the South Vietnamese Army was defeated by the North, my father was captured and placed in prison as a P.O.W. He escaped prison, cleverly found work smuggling people to safety out of Vietnam, and fled on his last smuggling mission to a refugee camp in Indonesia, eventually finding sanctuary in Vermont. When coming off the plane, my father was greeted by snow for the first time in his life. He was wearing shorts and flip-flops.

My parents are impulsively brave people who risked everything for the American Dream. I see that same courage in many of my friends and classmates who left their home countries, their spouses, their children, and everything familiar to them to find opportunity in the U.S.

In a way, it’s destiny and good fortune that brought my 28 fellow classmates together from 15 different countries to congregate in a small institution called the Heller School; to fuel our passion for health care. I remember the beginning of the school year like it was yesterday. Professor Bowser told our class to “break off into groups” and discuss our readings on the U.S. health care system. I began the discussion by saying, “In the U.S., health care is too complex for regular citizens to understand. We need to improve the system for people to easily access affordable care.”

One of my classmates, Queeneth, chimed in next. She matter-of-factly said, “I’m a doctor from Nigeria. One of our main issues is electricity. Where I’m from the electricity is not stable. I’ve had to deliver several babies in the dark using someone’s cell phone for light.”

Come again?

Her statement shocked me. Here I was, talking about improving a health care system to provide better care and access, and all she wanted was reliable electricity to do her job. My privileges in the U.S. blinded me from considering the limitations others work with every day. 

I knew then, although my classmates and I may never understand each others’ experiences, one thing that unites us is our desire to strengthen our own country’s health care situation; to help people. That is what brings us together from all over the world, to learn and broaden our understanding through each other’s perspectives. That is the invisible driving force that connects us all on a human level.

What is happening in my home country, the United States, makes me fearful for the future. Under our current presidential administration, we have a dangerous fear of immigrants and people from other countries that plagues our history. We seem to be evolving over time as a more divided nation; straying further away from us as the United States. What is often forgotten is what makes America wonderful: the infusions of different cultures and people that creates a more robust and thriving country. To deny entry to people fleeing war, or students desiring an education, is a tragedy and a missed opportunity for original ideas and innovation to flourish globally. As informed individuals, it is our responsibility to question authority, to be loud and disruptive when we know something is unethical, and to hold people in leadership positions accountable for their actions. We cannot back down when challenged or be afraid to use moments where we have the podium to share our voice and our stories. That is the beauty of free speech that many do not have the privilege of experiencing without fear of persecution. We cannot take our freedoms lightly or for granted.

From birth, we all offer something different to the world, a light that lives within us. A purpose larger than ourselves. Even when the world can feel dark, you can always find light. So, I encourage you to find your light; surround yourself with people and ideas that challenge you. Cultivate and stimulate growth to be your best self. If we strive to be our best selves, we have more opportunities, and space, to be better for others.

This is an amazing and historic time to be alive, let’s not let it go to waste. 

Thank you for letting me speak my truth today.

Knowledge Advancing Social Justice

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