Spotlight: Valedictorian Andrew Nguyen ’15

Andrew NguyenValedictorian Andrew Nguyen ’15—chief photographer for The Collegian, three-year resident advisor, Integral Program student, co-chair of Asian Cultural Night—was asked by a close friend a few weeks ago, “Do you think we did college right?” “Yes, I think we did it right,” Nguyen said.

The son of Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the San Jose area with just $40 and the clothes on their backs, Nguyen did not feel instantly at home at Saint Mary’s when he arrived four years ago. During first semester, he went home to San Jose every weekend. And he questioned his last minute decision to switch his major from sociology to the Integral Program.

“I was so anxious. Did I make the right choice? I am taking Greek classes. Why am I doing this?” he said. “First I was just trying to get through the month, but at the end of one of my classes, something clicked about what it means to have a liberal arts education. I settled down and thought, ‘This is it. I’ve found it.’ I was learning something new every single day.”

And as Nguyen settled into the rhythm of the Integral Program, he radically altered his approach to the SMC community second semester of his freshman year. He began staying on campus during weekends, joined campus groups, applied to be a resident advisor, was quickly elected as vice president of two clubs, and found jobs at The Collegian, IT Service, the Intercultural Center, and CILSA (Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action).

He said he realized then what he would go on to teach fellow students as a resident advisor: “You have to make it yourself. We can’t create the community for you.”

Nguyen had applied to 18 colleges. He had never heard of Saint Mary’s and always pictured himself attending Santa Clara University, but was familiar with the Christian Brothers because of a small Lasallian Vietnamese community in San Jose.

“I didn’t even know Saint Mary’s existed until I stumbled upon the basketball team. I found a gem, this small liberal arts college tucked away in the Moraga hills,” said Nguyen, who always went to Catholic schools. “When I visited, it was just one of those places I felt some connection to.”

Nguyen’s Catholic faith runs steadily through all his activities during his SMC years, and was one of the initial appeals of Saint Mary’s. “I wanted to explore Catholicism more at a higher level, to get a better context for my Catholic faith.”

An avid traveler, he has made pilgrimage trips to South America, Europe, and Asia. He also visited Madrid in 2011 and Rio de Janeiro in 2013 for World Youth Day, an international gathering of Catholic youth.

Working in youth services has also been a consistent part of Nguyen’s college years. In addition to being a resident advisor for three years, he worked with first-year students in Intercultural Development through the Intercultural Center, as a supervisor for an afterschool program at Westlake Middle School in Oakland, and did CILSA’s Summer Alumni Fellowship at the American Red Cross in Denver.

After graduation, he is headed to the University of Notre Dame for a graduate program called Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), a tuition-free two-year service program where graduate students spend summers taking classes towards a master’s in education and a teaching credential. Students then spend the school years teaching in under-resourced Catholic schools around the country. Nguyen will be teaching sixth-grade language arts in Santa Ana this fall.

Nguyen credits mentors like Brother Charles Hilken and Joan Iva Cube-Fawcett with inspiring him to success. He also said he was shocked when he was named valedictorian and does not consider himself a top student in the traditional sense. “I acknowledge I am still learning,” he said. “I recognize what I don’t know and am eager to learn.”

He will miss late night conversations and sitting on the quad reading, talking, and thinking about life—and especially the intensity of the Integral Program.

“Joining the Integral Program was the best decision I’ve ever made in college in terms of school and academics, he said. “I credit so much of my learning and growth, and developing my thinking and reasoning to the program. I am probably a better person and citizen because of it.”