As students scrambled for internships and grant money for this upcoming summer, a few passionate juniors were selected by the Career Development Office for the Tananbaum Program.
Benedict Nguyen ’15 will be using his grant to work two part-time internships focused on helping immigrants and addressing structural causes of poverty in Washington D.C. and Arlington, Virginia. Funded by alumni, the fellowship awards five to six thousand dollars to students with “motivation, resourcefulness, and maturity,” according to Vassar’s website.
Winning a Tananbaum fellowship came as a surprise to Nguyen, who was notified in December. “There were a lot of applicants, so I wasn’t really expecting anything, just hoping,” he said. He spoke of what the fellowship means to him, adding, “It was really exciting just to have the opportunity and receive structure and support from the [Career Development Office], particularly Aimee Cunningham, who’s my career coach.”
Nguyen’s choice of internships was informed by his experiences the previous summer in Strasbourg, France, assisting and housing Roma immigrants through an experimental project managed by the human rights organization, Espace 16, and funded by the government.
“We housed 130 individuals in mobile homes across two sites and offered them social services and weekly food allotment. We helped them find employment,” said Nguyen, a double major in French and International Studies.
Nguyen noted that the discrimination that the Roma immigrants face is not a new phenomenon and nor has it been well addressed. Indeed, according to Nguyen, the mistreatment of the Roma people has deep roots in European history.
“It comes from a long history of discrimination and exclusion that leaves them highly mobile. They aren’t really wanted within political borders…And since they lack access to employment rights, they aren’t able to find work,” he said. “At the same time, there haven’t really been states that have intentionally helped to facilitate their inclusion.”
His work this upcoming summer will transpose the same principles of aiding migrant populations and promoting economic equity into locations closer to his home in Virginia.
Nguyen said, “Last year, a lot of my work was learning a lot about the daily livelihoods of a particular vulnerable population.”
He continued, “I’d like to gradually get to know communities and implicate myself in them without causing harm. I’d do so in a way that is cognizant of the power dynamics that are involved.”
Nguyen will be interning with OneDC, a grassroots organization concerned with housing and wages, and as a client services intern for the Africa Community Center (ACC), part of a non-profit watching over the rights of Ethiopian immigrants around and outside of D.C.
Of OneDC, Nguyen said, “[The group is focused on] organizing people and empowering a community to engage with the local government, whether it be maintaining access to their homes or increasing their working wages.”
Both will be significantly hands on experiences, and he explained how he purposefully chose them for that reason.
“I find the most fulfillment working with people and would prefer to continue developing the skills and the mindfulness necessary to build up relationships,” said Nguyen, “rather than working with abstract policies and doing research about issues.”
Originally, Nguyen had planned on working for the U.S. State Department on immigration policies to gain more perspective on the government side of these issues, but was deterred after a security clearance took too long to pass.
Then during the month of May, he sought out the two internships after realizing his calling to work with people.
This upcoming summer will be interesting, if unpredictable, according to Nguyen. “I’m not quite sure what to expect,” said Nguyen, “I’m guessing that there’s not going to be much of a typical day.”
Nguyen grew interested in social justice and activism in childhood, and became more involved with it after coming to Vassar and gaining a better understanding of sociology. “It’s been kind of a gradual awakening. It has definitely picked up in intensity since coming to Vassar that I’ve realized that the world is structured in certain ways that systematically exclude groups of people.”
He grew up with a single mother who emigrated from Vietnam, and he admits that is part of what made him more socially conscious as a kid. “It was something that I was generally always pretty aware of as a kid: my mother’s journey from immigrating in the 1980s, and just the challenges she continued to face throughout my childhood, like maintaining a steady job.”
“It hasn’t been until more recently that I’ve connected what were very particular experiences of my mom’s trajectory to how that’s affected my experiences as a second generation immigrant,” said Nguyen. “It’s a broader understanding of the way these developments are more normal than I think they should be.”
Over the summer and in the future, Nguyen would like to address injustices by forging relationships with the vulnerable populations
“It’s not me addressing inequality by helping someone, but that relationship be created as meaningful and mutually beneficial,” said Nguyen. “The process of getting to know people from different backgrounds and better understanding the context that shapes people’s personalities; the way they view the world and their role in it.”