Johnnie Nguyen barely scraped by in high school. Passive and reserved, the Denver youth of Vietnam refugees found few resources for Asian-Americans at school and had limited mentorship at home, as his parents juggled multiple jobs so their children could pursue the American dream. Nguyen worried his parents’ hopes for him were slipping away.
Then he found a University of Colorado Denver acceptance letter in his mailbox.
Today, less than four years later, Nguyen has netted a job with a Denver law firm shortly after graduating with honors with a Bachelor of Arts degree from CU Denver’s Department of Political Science. As the new alumnus mulls over law-school acceptance letters, a reflection of his life-turned-full-circle holds valuable lessons for students still on the undergraduate track.
Seeking out resources
Stunned by his CU Denver acceptance, the once-trepid Nguyen sought out university support for new and minority students. The variety and accessibility of those resources, both on campus and in the city, were prime factors in his success, Nguyen said, singling out the director of the Asian-American Student Services in the Center for Identity & Inclusion as one example.
“She really helped me a lot as far as overcoming my insecurities I had growing up so I could grow personally and be more successful as a student,” he said, explaining that part of his passivity was culturally ingrained. “She’s the one who taught me that life’s all about learning. That’s how we grow as a society.”
His inquisitiveness, open-mindedness and positive view on life makes Nguyen stand out, said Michele McKinney, CU assistant vice president for external affairs and advocacy. Although his social-justice views, fed by his CU Denver experiences, are strong, he always seeks the other side of issues, said McKinney, who hired Nguyen as a CU Advocates student intern. “He’s a sponge. A breath of fresh air.”
Making meaningful connections
A chief turning point for Nguyen came when a friend introduced him to then-CU Regent Michael Carrigan, a Denver lawyer who had launched a run for district attorney. Nguyen ditched his medical-school plans, transferred majors, and joined Carrigan’s campaign.
Since then, he’s shook hands with two former U.S. presidents (Obama and Clinton), delivered a nomination speech for Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, served as a legislative aide in the Statehouse, and interned at the White House, among other things.
Carrigan’s mentorship proved golden for Nguyen, he said, adding that it was an opportunity made possible largely by CU Denver’s partnership and proximity to the city. “You have your education here on campus, and then you have so many experiential-learning opportunities just on the other side of Speer.”
Finding a voice
Nguyen recalled walking from class to the 16th Street Mall, taking the free shuttle to Carrigan’s law firm, and riding with him on the campaign trail during his freshman year. The experience shaped Nguyen’s goals.
“He was running on a social-justice platform, and there was a lot of talk about racial disparities, which got me really thinking about my own life and how I could contribute,” Nguyen said. “I felt like I had a voice, that I could empower other Asian-Americans and minorities. He really opened my eyes to what public service could do.”
Nguyen’s “voice,” no longer timid, grew during his time at CU Denver, fighting for equality for women and all minorities in higher education and beyond. “Today, there are a lot of words to describe Johnnie,” Carrigan said. “Shy is not one of them.”
Using urban partnerships
All students should take advantage of the CU Denver-city community and build “genuine relationships,” said Nguyen, who took light rail to the Capitol to work for lawmakers, one year serving as a legislative aide, and volunteered for various lawyers downtown. He now works for Machol and Johannes, LLC.
Off-campus connections ultimately can be the most rewarding for students, Carrigan said. “Whether it be politics, civic engagement or volunteer work, those are the relationships that are going to help direct your career and your future employment prospects.”
Through his on-campus work with McKinney, whom he met through Carrigan, Nguyen reached out to CU alumni and students across the state. After becoming a CU Advocate, a network of volunteers who promote the university and higher education, he was named CU Student Advocate of the Year in 2017.
Nguyen also won the President’s Diversity Award, a meaningful recognition coming from CU, he said. “It’s an honor to have a school where an award like this really is valued.”
Giving credit to Nguyen’s “drive and determination,” Carrigan also acknowledged the university for his success. “I think it’s important that CU Denver really devotes itself to serving diverse populations and finding a way for students like Johnnie to be admitted and have the resources necessary to attend and graduate,” Carrigan said. “When everyone succeeds, we all succeed.”
Nguyen also urges students to take advantage of CU Denver online courses. “I took a lot of them. They were a huge time- and money-saver, and I was able to learn at my own pace.”
Discovering a path
Finding and following his passion began and continues with building relationships, which Nguyen emphasized includes campus resources, professional models and, just as importantly, fellow students, many of whom he found through working in student government and being involved with offices such as Student Life and Campus Community.
“They weren’t just my friends. They were my mentors,” he said, explaining that he learned from their struggles, particularly from his women and multicultural friends. “There are so many expectations on students today, it’s hard to balance it all. My friends were there to help me out and pick me up.”
But his biggest advice to students: “Follow what you are passionate about. Don’t be afraid of changing your major, of what other people might think, or of the time it will cost. Because, at the end of the day, it’s about your happiness and the path you choose for your life.”