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Week of September 7, 2010

MESA program manager helps students connect

Born in Vietnam, Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) Intercultural Development Program Manager Linh Nguyen feels a bond with students from varied cultures and wants to connect them to the university community.

Nguyen recalls a college experience at the University of Florida-Gainsville that helped her value her own Vietnamese heritage — a spoken word poetry performance by a Filipino-American artist named Isangmahal who spoke about the duality of cultures. Nguyen says she could identify with the feeling of being rooted in two cultures.

Photo by Scott Soderberg, U-M Photo Services.

“It was just the passion they had talking about identity issues, plus it was an art form I had never been exposed to,” she says.

Nguyen left Vietnam at age 5 and eventually settled in Florida with her parents and siblings. She says her U-M job experience of helping students consider their cultural identities has sparked her own desire to visit her native country. “I feel like I don’t really know what the country of Vietnam is, I feel like something’s missing. I’d like to work on the Vietnamese part of myself,” she says.

On the job at MESA and the William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Center, Nguyen says her primary responsibilities include supporting students to understand self and identity, as they relate to understanding and engaging difference. “Our office is a rather team-oriented place, so I work closely with my colleagues. We help students with program planning, engage them in thinking about their leadership capacity, and development throughout their college experience. We help them achieve their goals,” Nguyen says.

Nguyen says much of her work is with a program called Growing Allies which strives to build safe and inclusive environment for social justice allies at U-M, through retreats, workshops, programming, marketing campaigns, resource sharing and more.

Her most powerful experience on the job came at a retreat when she spent time with a group of students in dialogue about racism and its impact on them: “It was a powerful three-hour conversation about everything, issues of race that related to their relationships; they talked about places where they felt repressed, how they dealt with friends, either girlfriends or boyfriends, what they were thinking about career options.

“A lot of these students experience racism,” she says, adding it can be shown in subtle ways, such as when their opinion is not sought in the classroom, or dismissed because it is different from the majority. “Students want to know how do you interact with people who don’t have the same views as you, how do you respond when you are actively targeted because of your race.”

To welcome all students to campus, MESA presents a Taste of Culture event from 2-6 p.m. Sept. 12 at Trotter Multicultural Center. The purpose is to get students exposed to different foods and cultures, and meet new people. There also are activities and prizes.

Outside of work, Nguyen continues to be interested in spoken word poetry. “I find the written word truly powerful,” she says. A long-time interest in photography has grown from nature scenes, such as the waves she recently photographed as they crashed against the shore at Portland, Ore., to portrait and event photography. “I will have a first official photographer gig for a friend’s wedding coming up; I am quite excited,” she says.

Nguyen enjoys painting, drawing and gardening. After taking a home improvement class last semester, she also loves “doing stuff around the house, whether it is painting walls, tiling floors, staining and refurbishing furniture or drilling holes in the wall. I love power drills,” she says.

Nguyen says in the future she’ll likely pursue a doctorate degree. “It will probably be something in intercultural communication, educational policies/higher education or community organizing.”

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Linh Nguyen, program manager, Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs Intercultural Development, on attending her first spoken word poetry event: “It was just the passion they had talking about identity issues, plus it was an art form I had never been exposed to.”