Lots of college students change their major. Anh Nguyen ’19 was no different. But once she determined that history would be her intellectual home, she has relentlessly pursued it. History is her passion now, specifically the history of the emergence of modernity, women and human rights in Vietnam and China.
Initially, Nguyen came to Earlham with an interest in education and wanted to pursue majors in economics and international studies.
After some courses in those areas, she loaded up on philosophy classes. “I always take a full load of 18 credits every semester, and I have audited some courses,” she says. She also reads a lot. One professor even told her she “devours books.”
“It was a process of finding the questions that truly mattered to me,” she says of her desire to be a History major.
The revelation came early enough in Nguyen’s undergraduate education that she began to compile research for a tentative Ph.D. dissertation, which she used to gain fully-funded acceptance to five prestigious graduate programs in history: University of Chicago, University of Toronto, Northwestern University, Columbia University and George Washington University. At the University of Chicago, Nguyen has been offered the Neubauer Family Foundation Distinguished Scholar Doctoral Fellowship.
Writing samples were supposed to be 20 to 30 pages, but she submitted 80-pages — three complete chapters. Feedback from committee members at the schools that are competing to lure Nguyen to their programs have commended her writing sample.
“I am delighted to see the omnivorous ways in which your work on Vietnam cuts across East, Southeast and South Asia and the capacious theoretical underpinnings of your scholarship,” wrote Psychology Professor Amanda Woodward, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Woodward wrote the letter notifying Nguyen of the Neubauer Fellowship opportunity, which is awarded annually to 10-15 graduate students and only one in history.
From February until December 2017, Nguyen completed an oral history project titled “Negotiating Relations and Values,” which won a $5,000 grant from Oral History in Liberal Arts. The project, which stemmed from an article she published after the 2016 U.S. presidential election and a trip home to Vietnam, tackled the question of how to coexist with people who did not share the same values.
The following summer Nguyen and two other students completed a summer research project with Economics Professor Jonathan Diskin about the challenges of measuring economic impact in downtown Richmond.
“This was a beautiful way of examining economics and history,” she says. “When you think of Richmond today and think of it in its prime 60 years ago, there is a stark contrast. The old Richmond still exists in fragments of the past along with hope for the future.”
During her junior year, Nguyen participated in the semester-long Research Seminar in Humanities based in Newberry Library of Chicago. She followed that with a May Term at the Library of Congress May in Washington D.C.
The summer before her senior year Nguyen was a Hertog Foundation’s fellow in political thought and philosophy in Washington D.C.
“I knew I wanted to investigate the big questions,” she says. “When I came back I took three philosophy classes. But I was not interested in only abstract ideas; I wanted to learn more about how they worked in concrete phenomena.”
Although she says she learned a lot and enjoyed the D.C. experience, she later realized a frustration with politics and philosophy because they did not allow her to answer the questions that lingered with her.
“At that moment I started to commence my own research in Vietnam history,” she says. “I realized that history would pull together all the insights that I had cultivated in the other disciplines. This was a moment of self-conviction that arose after ceaseless experiments and engagements, and it was in this moment that I knew that this was the right direction for me to follow. I realized how hard it was going to be to pursue the type of questions I was interested in, and that made me want to do so even more.
“After this moment, I gained the sufficient courage to email professors [at prospective graduate schools] telling them about my research project without feeling self-doubt.”