She is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, has helped pass protections for sexual assault survivors unanimously through the US Congress and is training to become an astronaut — and she’s only 27.
Amanda Nguyen visited Cornell on Sept. 19 as the keynote speaker for the 10th-anniversary celebration of the Asian and Asian American Center, bringing with her a tale of Asian American determination, political will and activism that parallels the history of the A3C itself.
The center was borne out of a need to “make this campus more responsive to the specific needs of students of Asian descent,” after several suicides by Asian students and incidents of “anti-Asian assaults” sent shockwaves through the Cornell campus during the 2002-03 academic year, according to Prof. Derek Chang, history and Asian American studies.
A task force was then convened and issued recommendations. But it was not until 2009 — after the University faced years of sustained pressure from student activists, with help from alumni, faculty and staff — that the A3C opened its doors.
“Institutional leaders, rather than initiating change themselves, were pushed to it by stakeholders,” Chang said. “This center was created by you, and this center is for you.”
That same ethos held true for Nguyen as she “penned her own civil rights into existence” in the face of a broken criminal justice system after she was sexually assaulted in 2013 as an undergraduate at Harvard.
“I felt a lot of despair, but I also felt fire,” she said. “I realized I had a choice. I could accept the injustice or rewrite the law, so I rewrote it. No big deal!”
As the room laughed, Nguyen echoed the words of Elle Woods, a fellow Harvard alumna of Legally Blonde fame: “What, like it’s hard?”
It is with the same lighthearted humor and frankness that Nguyen narrated the monumental significance of the unanimous passage of the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act in 2016, a rare example of bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized political climate.
“Jeff Sessions and Elizabeth Warren stood together to cast their vote on my bill — they’ll never do that again,” Nguyen quipped.
The achievement was made possible by the lobbying and advocacy work of Rise, a nonprofit Nguyen founded in November of 2014. Her work alongside the organizers and volunteers of Rise demonstrated the power of grassroots activism and the importance of passing on the torch to anyone who wants to join the movement.
The passage of the federal bill was “not the end of the story; really, it was just the beginning,” said Nguyen. Because most rape cases are adjudicated at the state level, her goal was to pass similar laws in all 50 states. To date, 26 state-level laws have been passed in the span of 27 months, which, as Nguyen pointed out, made the movement more successful than all the Democratic presidential candidates in the number of bills they were able to pass in their careers.
Nguyen also tapped into themes of the Asian diaspora and Asian American struggle. She credits her mother, who came to the US as a Vietnam War refugee, as the reason she got the “courage to take on the United States government.”
“She went into death to seek life,” Nguyen said of her mother’s harrowing escape from the Vietcong by boat. “She got me here, and we are all the dreams of our ancestors.”
At this point, the conversation turned to the sense of duty to their immigrant parents that many Asian American children feel.
“I’m an activist, which means by default I’m a failure because I’m not a doctor,” she joked. But there is truth behind the humor: Her decision to dedicate herself to this “risky field” faced “strong objections” from her parents for years.
“My other classmates felt this pressure from their parents, because their parents had given them so much and sacrificed so much to be in this country, that they had to do what their parents wanted them to do,” she said. “But we don’t owe anyone anything. You owe yourself the truth, which is what makes you happy.”
Aside from lack of support from family, being a young Asian woman in activism is lonely in other ways as well, she said. Nguyen spoke about “one of the most humiliating experiences [she’s] ever had,” when Senate staffers did not believe she was one of the witnesses invited by both parties to testify, but let her fellow white witnesses go through to the Senator’s office.
“I didn’t know whether to be the angry minority or to just accept it,” she said. “Is it even worth it to play by the rules of a game that wasn’t written for you?” Since then, through conversations with other Asian female trailblazers, Nguyen has learned to “just keep going.”
“This is the price you pay when you are the first of something,” she recalled what labor activist Ai-jen Poo once told her. “You will feel this pain. Just keep going.”
“If Elon Musk can do Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX, then I can do civil rights, and space, and fashion,” she said. “It’s totally okay to do all these things. You don’t have to sacrifice any part of your life.”