October 3, 2013

Cornell Administrator Reflects on Path to Social Activism

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Patricia Nguyen, assistant dean of students, said her interest in social activism stems from always being “made to feel different” when she was young.

I would start “cringing when the teacher would say the roll call and come to my last name and just completely butcher it,” Nguyen recalled.

Those experiences led Nguyen to develop a passion for activism that, in 2009, brought her to Cornell. Nguyen became the director of the Asian and Asian American Center at the University that year and served in the position until Oct. 1, when she left Cornell for the University of California at Los Angeles.

Nguyen said there is a “vestige of activism in my family,” something she attributed to the fact that she is Vietnamese-American. When she went to college at the University of California at Santa Barbara, she experienced more situations where she felt compelled to pursue social justice, Nguyen said.

“There were a lot of instances around understanding gender and sexism and race that made me really rethink what I was supposed to do,” Nguyen said. “I had this moment where a bias incident actually hit my campus and it made me really rethink the role I wanted to play.”

But Nguyen had not always planned to get involved with social activism. In fact, she said that as a college student, she planned to go to medical school.

“If anyone had asked me in undergrad whether I would have been a director like this, I would have been like, ‘No way.’ You actually really never know where you’re going to end up,” Nguyen said. “That’s why I love working with college students, [because] you all are in that space — trying to figure out what your relationships are to your family, to your friends, to the world, to your career.”

For Nguyen, the way to pursue such activism came through education.

“There are so many ways to look at issues of power and privilege and oppression. I just found out for myself, education was the way I wanted to go,” she said. “I think education is a social tool for change. Access to education has always been something that’s big for me. … It’s okay to be open to learn. It’s okay to be wrong. Otherwise, how else are you going to really grow?”

At Cornell, Nguyen said the biggest challenge she found was the way the community reacted to bias incidents in the past.

“When someone has an incident of bias, we sometimes couch it in such a way that it’s very isolated in one system of thinking. For me, it’s bigger than that. There are issues around community,” Nguyen said. “All students on campus are affected by that. Some of the things that Cornell was not prepared to do was, how do you help a community heal after something like that?”

In response to such challenges, Nguyen said she was most invested in several projects relating to helping people of color on campus, particularly one to help people of color on campus “[have] a more free understanding of what their identity is.”

One such project Nguyen has worked on is Cornell Responds, a campaign to help the community react, process and address bias incidents. Nguyen said the project was “[a] way about creating a restorative justice model that was based on education and a way for people to heal in the community.”

Even though she has departed from Cornell to UCLA, Nguyen said she believes Cornell’s “progressive mission and vision” will enable the University to “contribute to a sense of racial justice on campus.”

“Cornell was founded in a way that is very progressive. I think it’s that same spirit that I hope folks can really become acquainted again with and instill. That’s what makes me really proud to be affiliated with Cornell,” she said.

Nguyen said that although there are improvements that could be made at Cornell, especially when it comes to responding to bias incidents, she has observed some progress being made.

“When I first got here, this place was really segmented in a lot of ways. I feel like I’ve helped encourage at least a small pocket of the population to be comfortable working across difference,” Nguyen said. “But it’s not just like, you different, me different, kumbaya. You’re different, but I understand the histories of what you come from, and that’s why it’s different. It’s at least a more informed way of reaching across.”