Alumni Spotlight: Vinh Nguyen BA'05 (English)

Arts alumni are an accomplished crew. They have great advice for students and fellow graduates, and know that arts degrees teach skills that are sought-after in the professional environment.

Vinh Nguyen BA'05 graduated from the Department of English before moving on to continue his studies at McMaster University. He teaches English literature and Cultural Studies—particularly in the areas of diaspora, race, and migration—at the University of Waterloo. His research is concerned with how narratives by and about refugees shape public perception and response as well as policy. Through an engagement with various texts including fiction, poetry, memoir, film, and activism, he seeks to understand the rich complexity of refugee experiences. In 2017, Nguyen was award the prestigious Polanyi Prize for his work on refugees.

What is your favourite University of Calgary memory?

I remember vividly the almost-daily walk from the CTrain to campus, and the throngs of students going towards their various classes.

What was your favourite campus hang out spot?

I did not hang out on campus much, but The Den was always a good place to have a drink.

If you could give one piece of advice to a student completing the same degree that you did, what would it be?

Be okay with uncertainty. The undergraduate years can be a time of struggle, when young adults begin to discover themselves, the world around them, and who they want to become (it wasn’t a smooth or easy ride for me). You don’t have to have things figured out just yet (I surely did not). Use this time to explore, make mistakes, and learn. Literature is a perfect guide. Do your readings and take them to heart.

How has your career evolved?

After graduating from The University of Calgary I moved to Tokyo and taught English for a couple of years. Then I spent some time backpacking around Asia before starting my MA at McMaster University. I came back to Calgary and briefly did research for the Aboriginal Health Program in the Faculty of Medicine before committing to doctoral studies, also at McMaster. I secured a tenure-track position at the end of my degree in 2015 and have been a professor now for three years. I could never have planned this trajectory, and sometimes look back in wonder at how it all came to be.

What is the best thing about your job?

I get to read, research, and discuss the things I’m passionate about with students and colleagues. I’m constantly learning and improving.

How did your arts degree help you get to where you are now/your current career?

I loved studying English at the University of Calgary. Looking back, many of my English professors helped me to find my own voice and gain a sense of confidence in my abilities. They saw my potential at a time when I did not, and their belief in me made all the difference. I took a course with Donna Coates on “The Vietnam War in Film and Fiction” in my final year and it set me on the path of my graduate research. I realized for the first time that the Vietnam War and its consequences, which I had experienced personally, were subjects worthy of study, and that I had something important to say.

Do you have any other thoughts or memories you would like to share?

I would do it all over again.