Joseph Nguyen (UCLA, 2020) will graduate with a double major in Human Biology & Society and Asian Languages & Linguistics and Asian Languages minor. He received the 2019-2020 Foreign Language & Area Studies Fellowship.

By Joseph Nguyen (UCLA, 2020)

Life under COVID-19

Like most graduating seniors at UCLA, the COVID-19 crisis has been a time of massive uncertainty, forcing me and the SEA community at UCLA to restructure our lives. For me as a UCLA student, I had to adjust to find subletters to cover our rents, taking classes remotely, and worrying about whether we will graduate.

As a member of the Vietnamese community, I also had to navigate through other issues. In my role as president of the Vietnamese Student Union at UCLA, there has been a tremendous change. Our annual Southeast Asian Admit Weekend, which is meant to welcome new Southeast Asian Bruins to campus, had to be completely restructured to a virtual format. Our annual Vietnamese Graduation, a student-initiated cultural celebration for graduates of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian backgrounds, has been tentatively postponed to the summer. All of these student and community projects have required additional planning to transition our programming while still bringing a cultural awareness to students.

For me, this crisis has given me an eye-opening experience in learning about my own community, as a large majority of Vietnamese people in my neighborhood work in nail and hair salons, which has been hit hard by the loss of business. Friends have shared cautionary tales about their experiences with being Asian and Asian American amid this crisis.

I am currently taking my last undergraduate courses - Advanced Vietnamese Literature and Poetry, Vietnamese Literature and Cinema, Vietnamese-American Experience, and finishing my thesis on Vietnamese heritage language learning, schools, and linguistics. I consider myself extremely lucky that my daily schedule and academic plans have not changed so drastically. I only need to be patient with using remote learning technology and turning in homework online and I recognize that it is more challenging to make friends in classes, organize study groups, and work on extracurricular activities. Therefore, I am grateful and hope to work harder through online formats to help others who have been affected.

What are some highlights from your undergraduate experience at UCLA?

My most cherished memories at UCLA, ironically, took place outside of the campus itself. For my first two years, I worked at the Higher Opportunity Program for Education (HOPE) at UCLA, going to underserved communities to peer-counsel and tutor Vietnamese high-school students. As some of my students are now in college and some have just been admitted to UCLA, it warms my heart to see them grow as they take my place when I graduate.

I’ve learned from my campus organizations that friendship is the most important part of any cultural community. Within the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian American community, I’ve seen the amazing things motivated college students can do together. As I look back on the utilization of over $250,000 UCLA funding for student organizations to develop numerous projects aimed at developing a stronger understanding of the Southeast Asian community, I realize that the love and the friendships created in those movements were the most essential in creating a safe and collaborative space.

What's next for you?

I will be leaving UCLA to pursue Vietnamese studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University, which leads the world as one of the only programs with a focus on Vietnamese studies and U.S.-Vietnam international relations. There, I hope to continue my studies to triangulate Vietnamese diaspora communities in the context of US-Vietnam relations, through interdisciplinary approaches of Vietnamese language, culture, literature, and society.

I hope to become a professor, hopefully to further research onto transnationalism, sociocultural geopolitics, and diaspora in Southeast Asia. Such studies have been fairly narrow in their scope and approach, and I hope to offer an interdisciplinary approach through language, culture, religion, and memory about these topics, especially on its relevance to Southeast Asian diaspora communities around the world.


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Published: Friday, April 17, 2020