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Diversity advocate

Thanh Nguyen (MA ’12, EdD ’21)

Early pictures of Thanh Nguyen capture an infectious smile, a young girl with her family. But just behind her, white walls enclose a small room for a family seeking refuge in a place not their home. 

As she combs through old pictures, Nguyen’s early memories are marred by the family’s escape from a war-scarred country. In 1989, she and her family left Vietnam and found refuge—if only for a couple of years—in Hong Kong. 

And in 1991, Nguyen, the youngest of six, boarded a plane with her mom and sisters as refugees on a new journey to the United States. 

Inspired by her father, she saw education as a ladder of opportunity. “Education is the way to creativity. Education is the way to being radical,” she says. 

Nguyen says she didn’t know what she wanted to be, but she knew she wanted to learn. And in many ways, her family served as her greatest teacher.

“It’s true a lot of immigrants, refugees, work hard. To get somewhere or to get resources, we had to build our way up. We are very resilient,” she says.

Nguyen earned two advanced degrees from the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education, both excellent preparation for her role as director of the Center for Multicultural Excellence at Metropolitan State University in downtown Denver. Her experience, research and passion for equity made her a natural for the job. 

After immigrating to America, Nguyen remembers feeling “othered.” At a store one day, as she and her mom and sisters spoke in Vietnamese, a couple scolded them: “When you’re in the U.S., you need to speak English.”

“My sisters and my mom were like: We feel comfortable speaking in our own language,” Nguyen recalls. 

She spoke Vietnamese at home but English at school, with chagrin. “When we were in ESL, I felt I was being looked down on,” she says.

Her embarrassment stuck for a long time, and she kept everything to herself, even her successes. “It was hard to share with people. They’d be like, ‘You got it because of a quota.’”

Now she channels her passion for marginalized people as an advocate for students. 

At DU, Nguyen’s research focused on hiring policies for women of color in higher education. She found that women, especially women of color, don’t advance as quickly as white men. 

“Here I am constantly justifying, I am worth it. I am valuable,” she says, adding that the dearth of women of color in leadership roles—which she attributes, in large part, to persistent racism—leaves many women of color without mentors. 

“People weren’t able to define what diversity is, what it entails. There is no one set definition,” she says. Schools that say they “value equitable practices” all had different definitions for that claim, she found. 

Nguyen’s research at DU was guided by advisory chair Cecilia Orphan, who remains one of Nguyen’s key mentors.

“Everything that she does, from her research and her work, she’s not just brilliant, she brings in a lot of heart,” Orphan says. “She does this with the goal of striving toward a more equitable future for students and faculty.”

At MSU, Nguyen’s No. 1 priority is student engagement. She wants students to know they’re not alone. “I know what it’s like to go to school and not be involved or navigate these systems that they don’t know about,” she says.

While she’s new to this role, her impact from previous roles is lasting. Thuy Trang, a graduate assistant at MSU, is proof. Trang describes Nguyen as goofy and lighthearted, a woman with a big heart.

Nguyen’s heart is what drew Trang in. The two met in 2018 at the University of Colorado Dental School. Working at CU’s office of diversity, Nguyen helped Trang navigate the application process. At every turn, Nguyen was there. 

“She read my personal statement. She listened to my concerns. It was nice to see a Vietnamese woman in this position. I don’t have that guidance in my own home,” Trang says.

Trang says she followed Nguyen to MSU to work as her graduate assistant because she believes in their work—and in Nguyen, whom she credits with shattering the stereotype of docile Asian women. 

“She has a presence about her. She’s very sure,” Trang says. “To have someone like that guide you, it just affirms this is where I’m meant to be.”

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