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Sustainability grad is inspired to empower, has big plans

ASU sustainability grad Tammy Nguyen

Tammy Nguyen.

April 27, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Phoenix native Tammy Nguyen discovered her passion when a guest speaker visited her yoga class at Desert Vista High School during her junior year. Brigitte Bavousett, an Arizona State University sustainability instructor and alumna, spoke about plastic in the oceans.

“However, what intrigued me the most was when she talked about SafeSIPP, an invention created by an ASU School of Sustainability student that helped women across the world have better access to clean, safe water,” said Nguyen. “I thought to myself: If one student can make a difference that is empowering for others across the world, then I wanted to do the same.”

Nguyen had been thinking about attending the University of Arizona, majoring in environmental science — although her preference was sustainability — just because ASU seemed too close to home.

“I finally came to my senses and realized that during a time where I had no interest in anything, that small spark of interest I felt after Brigitte’s talk was a sign to attend Arizona State University, and especially the School of Sustainability,” she said.

This May, Nguyen is graduating from Barrett, The Honors College with an impressive resume: A Bachelor of Arts in sustainability, a minor in Spanish, a minor in women and gender studies and a food systems certificate. She is also a New American University Scholar, a recipient of the President’s Award 2016-2020, a recipient of the Sustainability Champions Award 2016-2017 and an awardee of the School of Sustainability 10th Anniversary Sustainability Education Scholarship in 2018. Oh, and did we mention she plans to return for one more year as a Master of Sustainability Solutions student?

We talked to Nguyen about her story and her plans for the future.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: At ASU, I learned that the world is more complicated than what we make it out to be. Because ASU is so big, it can be extremely easy to surround yourself in a bubble with like-minded individuals. The citylike nature of ASU surprises me every day where there are thousands of students who have different views, backgrounds, interests and goals. I am constantly being challenged — in a good way — by my peers, the lectures or events I attend and my own friends. If you take another step outwards, ASU can be a bubble in itself. I have learned to always evaluate the environment and situation I am in to understand the cultural and social contexts that influence the dynamics and systems within. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? 

A: Milan Shrestha taught me to never sell myself short. He was the first professor to assign me an Honors Contract with high expectations to meet. I had to gather my research at an international U.N. conference I was attending during the semester and present my findings on an unfamiliar presentation platform, on top of already struggling quite a bit in class anyways. Even though it was one of the most stressful times academically in my four years of college, working closely with Professor Shrestha, my actual experience in Germany and the end presentation I created validated everything I had worked hard for. I left Professor Shrestha’s class feeling like the challenges I faced helped me grow and become more confident as a sustainability student. I have now realized that he set these high expectations for me because he believed in me, and this learning experience has drastically defined my self-worth and place in the School of Sustainability.

Tammy Nguyen graduates from Barrett, the Honors College in May 2020

Karen Leong taught me the importance of understanding my culture. She was my professor of WST 331: Asian Pacific American Genders and Sexualities. I grew up as one of the few Vietnamese Americans in a predominantly white community, where I had a lot of shame and have been constantly trying to figure out my identity and place to this day. This course was the first time I looked into the history of Asian-Americans in the United States and the nuance of this identity. Professor Leong was a mentor throughout the semester and guided me throughout my final paper, which was a deeper dive of my family history and the effects that immigration and gender roles have on familial relationships. She encouraged me to embrace my Asian-American identity and made me realize the importance of an intersectional lens in social justice and environmental issues. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: The best advice I could give is to not strictly abide by a plan. Our society, especially in America, has ingrained this individualistic, mechanic, go-go-go mentality that pressures young people into stressing about what their next step is. Even though thinking about my future is high up on my things-that-stress-me-out list, I have realized that you can only control your future to an extent. Some of my best experiences have occurred from spontaneous decisions. For example, randomly signing up to volunteer for a climate organization led me to attending the most well-known climate conference in the world, which established my passion for youth engagement. You truly never know where you can end up in life, so I suggest you take any opportunity that you are passionate about, because who knows where your life will go from there. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus is the outside walkway on the third or fourth floor of Wrigley Hall. There is a perfect ambiance of light filtering through the tall fig plants and I love how there are bikes parked in between. The best moments would be in spring or fall, when it is perfect weather and just the right amount of sunshine, but it is still enough of a built environment where it is peaceful and bug-free. The third floor is the grad/faculty floor where I have had plenty of meetings, but the fourth floor is where I worked for many months in the events office and have also gained a homely sense of place. I love sitting there in between classes to study, catch up on homework or quickly jot down notes after I had just had a meeting with one of my professors.

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: After my undergraduate career, I am in a 4+1 program and thus have one more year at ASU to complete my master’s in sustainability solutions. However, after I graduate in 2021, I hope to have a job that focuses on community building and youth involvement, preferably in environmental action. I do not have a specific job title in mind, but I know that a variety of sectors can address these questions, such as nonprofits, international bodies or specific youth-led organizations. Jobs are constantly being created and evolved, especially in the field of sustainability, which I can’t wait to explore.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: This is extremely hard for me because as I initially typed this out, I realized I was listing every institutional inequality in the world. However, the first thing I would focus on is environmental injustice. I would fix the systemic flaws that have prevented indigenous communities and other forgotten cities from still having clean water, the money-fueled giants that prioritize oil and fracking over our planet, and the disproportionate impact women in low-income countries face from natural disasters. I would fix the policies, plans and under-the-table deals that have put money into the pockets of people in power and disregarded youth and the citizens of the world. It is clear that $40 million will not be enough to solve all this. 

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