Full Circle

Going home to give back

When Dan Thanh T. Nguyen ’06 takes the T home to her old neighborhood in Dorchester twice a week, she’s not lugging her laundry or seeking home-cooked refuge from the dining hall. Instead, she brings lesson plans and games to share with her students who meet at the Grover Cleveland Middle School, just as 12 years ago a Boston Youth Refugee Enrichment (BRYE) volunteer did for her.

On the street in Dorchester, 6-year-old Tony runs up to Nguyen and grabs her hand to hold all the way to the Vietnamese American Community Center, where he works on his homework after school. As Tony, one of Nguyen’s students from the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA) BRYE program, showed off his artwork and read aloud “Five Little Pumpkins,” Nguyen whispers, “He’s definitely one of my favorites, even though we’re not supposed to have favorites.”

Back in 1991, Nguyen was in Tony’s position. Three days after her family moved to Boston from Vietnam, Nguyen’s parents enrolled her in BRYE’s eight-week summer program. “The moment I set foot in this country, I was introduced to BRYE,” she says. “I remember being at the bus stop when the van came by.”

Nguyen went for sleepovers in the Quad and went canoeing on the Charles with her “big BRYE sib,” Trang Tu ’94. When Nguyen was in third grade and moved from bilingual to regular school, she “felt like such a loser,” but Tu would call her and encourage her. “When I was eight, I knew I wanted to be exactly like her,” Nguyen says. “She still inspires me now. I wouldn’t flatter myself to say that I’m exactly like her because she’s so great that I don’t know that I could ever become close to what she was to me. But in a sense I’m giving back to the community as she was. At least I’m making the effort to do that.”

In fact, she’s making a huge effort to give back now that she’s at Harvard. “The minute I got to college and had the opportunity, I felt a responsibility,” she says.

One of the main reasons Nguyen chose Harvard was for its strong community service programs and because of people like her senior counselors and big sib. Nguyen says that her family had always considered Harvard for her before moving to Boston, but that being in BRYE let her get to know the type of people at Harvard, “people who are really caring, great with kids and ambitious.”

At Harvard, Nguyen’s weeks are filled with activities within the Vietnamese community. In addition to BRYE, she is involved with her Buddhist Temple Youth group, the Vietnamese Student Association, a Vietnamese literature reading club and the Intercollegiate Vietnamese Student Association that spans New England. “I think that if there were more time in the day, I would definitely like to get involved in other ethnic organizations and get to learn about other cultures. Because there are only 24 hours in the day, I feel like I should be doing what I could for Vietnamese children and the community here because it’s what is closest to my heart. It’s a matter of priorities,” she says.

Aside from her academic dedication, Nguyen tutors both Mondays and Thursdays in Dorchester. On Friday nights she attends her reading club and goes to bed early to prepare for a 5-1/2 hour teaching session that starts at 8 a.m. Saturday mornings at the Vietnamese Language School. On Sundays, she goes to her Buddhist Temple Youth Group until 4 p.m., so “there’s not much time left for partying.”

Nguyen stresses that it is not a lack of interest that limits her involvement in other activities. “There are lots of organizations here I wish I could be a part of. I could go try other Asian organizations, or even beyond that, I would like to explore all these great opportunities they have at Harvard. I just don’t have the time to,” she says. “I wish I could, it’s just the time limit.”

An economics concentrator, Nguyen says that if she were to do a thesis, which is a “very strong possibility,” it would be about how economics affects human rights in Vietnam. “I love that topic. I feel passionate about anything Vietnam related, so it would be easy for me to write a thesis about Vietnam or learn about Vietnam because I would be so motivated.”

Nguyen also wishes there were more Vietnamese volunteers in the BRYE program. Sometimes, she finds herself making calls for all of the BRYE programs. “Unfortunately, I’m one of the few who speaks Vietnamese, and I would feel guilty if I didn’t make the phone calls to the Vietnamese people because there would be no one capable of communicating with these families.”

When Nguyen started to describe her kids, she says, “This is so exciting. Some people say I talk about my kids too much.”

One of her students, Anna, had selective mutism and would only talk to people in the family or people she trusted, Nguyen says. Her regular school teacher had told Nguyen that Anna was excessively shy and only spoke in one-word answers, but then “one day at BRYE, Anna said, ‘Wait for me, okay?’ and it was a really big deal,” Nguyen recounts. She says it might have been the influence of being around younger people and more liberal teachers.

Anh Bao Nguyen, a director of the summer program and a junior at UMass-Amherst who also went through the BRYE program, says that he remembers, “this one morning, when Anna’s mom came up to me and told me Anna was really anxious to have her drive her to BRYE because she missed her friends and Thanh.”

Another day, Nguyen spent time teaching the students how to express their feelings. She started with the basic “happy” and “sad,” but then also threw in “confused.” She says that although she spent 15 minutes on it and got really frustrated, all her students could muster was “confu-.” Later that week, in a moment Nguyen calls a “highlight,” her student Tony was banging on a desk during a lesson. When asked why, Tony told Nguyen “I’m confused.”

This past summer Nguyen taught the youngest beginning level, a task only she could have taken on, says Summer Director Sarah T. Tsang ’03-’04. According to Tsang, Nguyen’s unrelenting dedication beyond the minimum hours that are “exhausting already” inspired everyone. After the summer ended Nguyen tutored one of her students every day until school started.

In addition to teaching, Nguyen is also working on an immigration case. One of her students, Thuong, and her two older sisters are in Boston on a medical visa that expires in December, while their other two sisters are back in Vietnam. Their mother died in the fire that burned down their home. Nguyen says that the family lives in the countryside and does not have the financial means to maintain the same level of education they have here, so her goal is to extend their stay here to avoid disrupting their education. She meets with the PBHA directors to work on their case; she updates her friends about her progress; her older brother has become involved; the girls come over to Nguyen’s home for dinner.

Most of the students come from involved families, like Nguyen’s, that value education, which is part of what makes BRYE such a successful program, Nguyen says.

“The families are extremely grateful and very supportive of us and want their children in BRYE,” Tsang says. The support from the community and the continuity lent to BRYE by its term-time tutoring program, in which Nguyen teaches many of the same students she has in the summer, helps BRYE bring the kids up to speed. According to Tsang, the kids are far behind in their literacy skills when they’re thrown into the Boston Public Schools, but since “they’re smart kids and really motivated to learn, it’s really rewarding because the kids do improve so much.” Some, Tsang says, “know they’ll only be in BRYE for one or two years and then they won’t need it anymore.”

Nguyen can’t tell yet if any of the current students will be hosting sleepovers in the Quad themselves in a decade or so. The youngest beginners, whom Nguyen teaches, “don’t know what college means yet,” but she says she “tries to develop a love of learning for them.” Nguyen is too modest to credit herself with her students’ success and it’s hard to tell for sure whether a six-year-old can sit still long enough to “love learning.” Something’s working though. Still excited from his chance meeting with Nguyen on the streets of Dorchester, Tony wanted to finish his homework with her even as the other kids zipped up their coats for the park.