Food was scarce. Crime was rampant. Education was no longer a priority. This was Vietnam in the late 80s.
More than a decade had passed since the Vietnam War had ended. Doan Nguyen—an influential Vietnamese military figure and the grandfather of CU Denver sophomore Johnnie Nguyen—had spent those years imprisoned for his anti-Communist, pro-American views.
Eventually the entire family (including Johnnie Nguyen’s grandfather and his parents) escaped Vietnam’s political turmoil and migrated to Denver—the city where Johnnie was born and would grow up. But even after his parents moved more than 8,000 miles and immersed themselves in a culture different from their own, at least one thing stayed the same: they had no appetite for politics.
Johnnie Nguyen has a different viewpoint. “Asian-Americans in the U.S. government are scarce,” he says. “I want to break that tradition. I want to change the world, and I want to make history.”
The summer of 2015 gave the aspiring politician a great start. Nguyen interned with the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL)—an organization that promotes Asian Pacific American success in government policy and public service careers—working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
During this eventful summer, he met influential policymakers, attended an African Methodist Episcopal Church prayer vigil after the Charleston shooting, and stood on the Supreme Court steps as marriage equality extended to all Americans. Johnnie Nguyen experienced history as it was made.
It was Nguyen’s freshman year at CU Denver, and if he felt nervous, he didn’t let it show. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences political science major was campaigning for a spot on the Council of Asian Student Leaders, a subgroup of CU Denver’s Asian American Student Services. The services provided by this program was one of the reasons why Nguyen chose to attend CU Denver.
“CU Denver is not your regular college experience,” he says. “It’s a unique one. There is so much more diversity here than at other schools and so many clubs to celebrate that diversity.”
Asian American Student Services is an Educational Opportunity Program that provides learning and networking support for Asian, Pacific Islander and Middle Eastern students. The Council for Asian Student Leaders (CASL) unites student members of CU Denver’s eight Asian cultural clubs, allowing them to plan cultural events for all students.
Nguyen stood in front of the CASL group and advocated for himself, winning the vote almost without effort. Not long afterward, he also won a senate seat with CU Denver’s Student Government Association for the 2015-2016 academic year.
He also spent time volunteering at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood where he met a nurse who knew someone she thought Nguyen should meet—University of Colorado Regent (one of the nine elected members of CU’s governing board) and District Attorney candidate Michael Carrigan. She introduced the regent to the freshman, and it only took a cup of coffee and a conversation to brew a strong friendship between the unlikely pair.
“We need to make sure that all members of society are cultivated and given leadership opportunities,” says Carrigan. “We are a nation of immigrants and we need to embrace that.” It’s not every day that a student has a CU Regent for a mentor, but Nguyen happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right person.
“Johnnie is articulate, composed and engaging,” Carrigan says. “I often have to walk into a room full of people I don’t know and make connections. Johnnie is less than half my age and he can do the same thing.”
Nguyen began following Carrigan during his campaign for Denver District Attorney, networking with local and national politicians to prepare for the world of politics.
“I think Michael is the perfect model of how to represent CU Denver and the city of Denver as a community,” says Nguyen. “He teaches me exactly what I need to know to succeed.”
Politics is not a field that many Asian-Americans pursue, according to Soyon Bueno, director of Asian American Student Services. “Johnnie is very grounded and rooted in his Asian culture,” she says. “But at the same time, he is passionate about politics, about Asian-American issues, about women’s issues, about social issues that affect everyone.”
That’s why Bueno considered Nguyen a great fit for the CAPAL internship and urged him to apply—so he did. It wasn’t long until Nguyen found himself packing his bags for Washington, D.C.
Summer internship 2015
Nguyen rose early every weekday morning to take the metro from his intern housing in Annandale, Va., to his internship in Washington, D.C. The commute was 90 minutes one way, but Nguyen knew how to pass the time. He watched as men in suits, women in blazers and wandering tourists rotated in and out of the train. He stared out the window, looking at the historic landmarks that, for him, had existed only in photographs and news reports. Now, the buildings were real, and they were part of his everyday life.
“When I was a kid, I never thought that I could ever be here in Washington, D.C.,” Nguyen says. “I used to think that I needed to be white to succeed, and I’m ashamed of that now. I’m proud of my culture, and I’m proud of my accomplishments.”
Nguyen isn’t the only Asian-American who has felt he cannot succeed. “Instead of a ‘glass ceiling,’” says Bueno, “there is what Asian-Americans often call a ‘bamboo ceiling,’ which hinders them from rising to executive levels of leadership.”
During his internship, Nguyen challenged this bamboo ceiling by working closely with the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders—a campaign that President Obama began in 2009 to improve access to federal programs and political positions for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs).
For two months, Nguyen analyzed data at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), researching issues that affect AAPIs. Based on Nguyen’s analyses, the USDA knew if it was fulfilling the White House initiative and helping AAPIs in the United States. If not, the department knew to make a change.
But when Nguyen wasn’t crunching numbers, he was shaking hands with some of the country’s most influential policymakers—and his personal heroes: Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.
He celebrated this summer of achievement by watching 4th of July fireworks shoot higher than the Washington Monument. He took selfies with the U.S. Air Force band, and he sat on the Lincoln Memorial steps just before sunset.
“Every day, I am a representative and an activist for the Asian-American community,” says Nguyen. “I’ve always wanted to do something that would be worthwhile, and this is it. I’m living my legacy.”
Honoring his family, honoring the community
Nguyen’s fingers traced the names of fallen U.S. service members that are engraved on the black walls of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. He thought of his grandfather. He began to pray.
“His whole life, my grandfather wanted peace for my family. He wanted peace in Vietnam. He wanted to end the hate,” Nguyen says.
By finishing his undergraduate degree, attending law school and running for political office, Nguyen plans to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, as a political representative for those who do not have a voice in the U.S. government.
“I wouldn’t be here without Michael and Soyon’s support,” says Nguyen. “Now, I want to support Asian-Americans in the same way. I spent the summer making progress, and I don’t see myself stopping.”
“For me, it’s been very special to meet Johnnie,” Carrigan says. “It’s a way to see the incredible quality of the students we have at CU Denver.”
From his offices in CU Denver’s Student Government Association to the inevitable yard signs and bumper stickers that will say “Nguyen 2032,” Johnnie Nguyen is history in the making.