Nguyen recounts following his own dreams

December 11, 2017 — by Chelsea Leung

In the 1970s, decades before the Syrian refugee crisis, Vietnamese refugees were spilling off rickety wooden boats as they risked everything in hopes of reaching refugee camps in nearby Southeast Asian countries. One of those escaping was a 4-year-old Ken Nguyen, who eventually grew up to be an English teacher.

Teaching, however, was not the career path his parents wanted him to take. As refugees, Nguyen’s parents wanted him to have a higher-paying job and future that was “financially worthwhile.”

After Saigon fell to the communist North during the Vietnam War in April 1975, Nguyen and his parents fled amid a mass exodus of people who sought better economic futures for themselves and their children.

Escape was not easy, however. First, they had to purchase tickets for the boats leaving Vietnam and sneak out of Saigon. They boarded a merchant ship on the Mekong River that brought them to the coast. From there, they left on wooden refugee boats.

After arriving at a refugee camp in Indonesia, they were placed on a waiting list for asylum in countries like Australia and the U.S. for over a year. After receiving sponsorship from a Catholic Church in Louisville, Ky., Nguyen’s family moved to Louisville, then New Orleans and then eventually ended up in Seattle, where Nguyen grew up.

Like many other Asian immigrant families, Nguyen’s parents wanted a better life for him — namely getting an advanced degree and going into a field like computer science, engineering or medicine.

Because they wanted Nguyen to have a financially stable job, Nguyen did part-time Information Technology (IT) work while double majoring in English and psychology and minoring in philosophy at Seattle University. After graduation, he worked IT at Microsoft for a year to satisfy his parents’ wishes but found himself bored.

“It wasn’t work that gave me a sense of fulfillment, meaning or purpose,” Nguyen said. “Besides, I’d always had in the back of my mind that I would probably end up teaching.”

Nguyen said his high school teachers displayed a passion for their jobs and helped him through a difficult period. Although Nguyen described himself as a “quiet and shy kid,” his teachers engaged him in conversations about reading material, gave him book recommendations and took an interest in him through his writing.

“I was able to extrapolate that they not only had a powerful influence on me, but on other students as well,” Nguyen said. “That made me reflect on what I wanted for my own life and career.”

Nguyen returned to Seattle University for to pursue a teaching credential and had his first teaching job in Seattle for a year. After moving to California, he taught at Leland High in San Jose for six years before moving to Saratoga High in 2008.

At SHS, he said he enjoys working with students who are “so bright and open to learn new things,” and the other English teachers who work hard and and inspire him to be better, Nguyen said.

Because many second-generation students here face the same pressures that he felt from his parents, Nguyen advised students to strike a pragmatic balance between realistic futures and dreams, but not to worry too much over their future finances.

“There’s no point in pursuing a passion that you’re not very good at,” Nguyen said. “It’s been my experience that if you pursue the things that you want to and love to do, that financial security will somehow fall into place.”

Nguyen said that compared to other jobs that have no real benefit to society, teaching gives him a sense of purpose.

“Teaching shows me that I’m doing something meaningful and fulfilling, and contributing in a way that I wouldn’t be otherwise,” he said.


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