Thursday, May 14, 2009

Dr. Charles C. Nguyen - Keynote Speech - Luncheon, Journey to Freedom: A Boat People Retrospective


Keynote Speech
Luncheon, Journey to Freedom: The Boat People Retrospective

Honored Guests,
Dr. Billington, Librarian of the Library of Congress,
Chief Peter Young, of the Asian Division Friends Society,
Fellow Vietnamese,

Kinh Chao Qui Vi

Thank you Dr. Thang for a very kind introduction which I am not sure if I deserve it. With your excellent achievements, Dr. Thang, you should be the one standing up here giving the keynote speech, not me.

Let me start by telling you about the bad news/good news scenario of my speech today.

I have a bad news to tell you. If you came from around the country to see the first Vietnamese American Congressman Joseph Cao and bought a ticket to attend this luncheon, I have to disappoint you by informing you that although Congressman Cao and I look very alike because of our size and our look, I am not Joseph Cao. Therefore, you can contact Reme and the organizers to get a refund of your ticket. I am sure Reme will never invite me back to the Library of Congress again after I pull this stunt on her.

On the other hand, I have a good news for you. By now after learning about my background and my profession most of you must have predicted that you will have to sit through another long and boring lecture given by a professor because you may think that professor must give boring lectures, what else? As you already know, since I was drafted the last minute to stand in for Congressman Cao, I did not have enough time to prepare the speech. So the good news is my speech will be very short today because I don’t have much to say. In case that you don’t know or have forgotten, it is customary for Asian people to take a nap after lunch especially a good lunch like this. Thus who wants to be between a good lunch and a nap? So I will deliver my speech very quickly and get out of here so that you all can go on with your business including taking a good nap. So that is the good news.

Before beginning my speech, I would like to acknowledge the organizers of this magnificent symposium. What a fabulous job and what a wonderful idea to come up with the theme of the symposium: Journey to Freedom: The Boat People Retrospective. Please join me to give the organizers a big applause. THANK YOU.

I would like to thank Reme and Genie for inviting me to give the keynote speech at the luncheon. It is indeed a great honor for me to speak at the Library of Congress today.

Let me share with you some of my life’s stories. I attended a French Boarding School all my life in Vietnam and went to Germany to earn a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering and finally settled in the US in 1978 to re-unite with my mother and my siblings. So you can easily detect that my accent is a very mixed accent. It is like a Vietnamese, French and German accent. So through my accent, size and look, whether I was in Germany or the US, it did not take long for someone to figure out that I am a foreigner. Being a foreigner in a country, I have had certain disadvantages and advantages that native (domestic) people do not. Being a foreigner I have often found myself at the two extremes of visibility.

Extreme Number 1, Being Invisible. When I was not in an important position in my institution, then I was almost invisible to people. Let me tell you about a story of my life.

After I joined Catholic University in 1982 as an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering, I actively participated in the school activities such as luncheons, committees and faculty meetings for the whole academic year. At the 1983 commencement, after walking back from the ceremony still wearing the academic doctoral regalia, the dean of my school walked up to me and said “Congratulations!”. I did not understand why he did that and thought he congratulated me for joining the school as a professor and I replied “Thank you”. Then at the 1984 commencement after I spent two whole years at Catholic University, the dean walked up to me and said “Congratulation!” again after the ceremony. I was surprised and wondered why he did that again. After thinking for a moment, it daunted on me that the dean thought I was a doctoral candidate of the school and congratulated me for receiving the doctoral degree. “Wow”, I have been INVISIBLE to this dean in the last two academic years despite my active participation in the school activities. At the 1985 commencement after I spent three years at Catholic University, the dean did it to me again. This time, I walked up to him and said “I am not a student, but I have been a faculty member and your colleague in the last three years”. He was shocked and apologized to me. The incident never occurred again.

Extreme Number 2, Being Too Visible. When I was in an important position such as chair of an academic department or dean of a college, then being a foreigner, the spotlights constantly shone on me making me too visible, and sometime that is not good. Let me tell you another story.

During the recruitment of the dean for our school of engineering back in 2001, after a long screening, it came down to two candidates, a professor from MIT and me. The candidate from MIT, a Caucasian American did only have to answer a few simple questions for about 5 minutes in an interview with the faculty. However when my turn came, the faculty grilled me with tons of questions about my leadership capability, budget handling, development, etc. for at least half an hour. It got to the point that one Chinese American professor in the room had to speak up that it was not fair to me and then they stopped. After all, considering the history of my university that had only 8% minority at the time, I could not blame the faculty because up to 2001 when I became the first Asian American Dean of my school, my predecessors were all Caucasians and Irish Americans with names like O’Malley, Marlow, O’Donnell, Kennedy, O’Connell, OBAMA, (joking) etc. It is understandable that my faculty had a hard time accepting a dean with a very strange name that is very difficult to pronounce correctly, NGUYEN, Nugent, and Nuen.

Then in the last two terms as dean for the last 8 years, I have been under a microscope as my faculty has watched every move of mine and waited for me to make stupid mistakes to take me out.

You may now ask a big question. HOW DID I SURVIVE? Let me tell you HOW.

Being Asian and Vietnamese, I came from a different upbringing due to our culture and tradition. As a result, I have been very successful in dealing with the politics of the academic environment because I have used principles that are very foreign to the conventional politics of an American Academic Institution like my university. Dealing with politics is like playing chess. I have made other players so confused by my tactics and strategy that are very foreign to them. My principles are purely based on real integrity, trust and excellent performance, which is very uncommon in a heavily political environment of an academic institution. Thus I have been able to win the games due to my unconventional tactics. Recently despite a fierce political move of a few of my faculty trying to uproot me, I have been re-appointed by our president for the third term as dean of my school. So I am safe for the next four years. I am very proud of this accomplishment because deans of a school like ours can only survive no more than two terms.

Another disadvantage of being a foreigner is that my colleagues and faculty had high and unfair expectations for me than my non-minority peer when it came to leadership election. As a rule of thumb, I had to work doubly hard and proved to have double capability as compared to my non-minority peer in order for my faculty to accept me as their leader.


When I joined Catholic University as an assistant professor in 1982, I expressed to my colleagues that I never wanted to be in an administration position like department chair or dean. Joining an academic institution, I just wanted to focus on research and teaching and did not want to deal with the politics. Guess what? I have served as a department chair for 4 years and dean for 8 years during my career at Catholic. However as I thought about it, the leadership capability has been in me from day one, from the day I was the president of the Vietnamese Student Association for 3 years at George Washington University.

After I joined Catholic University in 1982, I often found myself sitting in the office of my chairman and complaint about the school’s policies, regulations and vision. My chairman told me that if I cared so much about the school, then I should take on the leadership so that I could change the policies and vision as I like. Thus taking his advice, my journey as an administrator started when I became the chair of my department in 1997 and subsequently the dean of my school in 2001. I have loved to be in the driver seat in the last twelve years due to my capability to shape my department and school the way I wanted by introducing new initiatives and new policies.

Despite all the problems and obstacles I shared with you above, I still think the United States is a great place to live with all the opportunities provided to its citizens. I would not be in my current position if I were in a different country. Thus I can say that I am proud to be Asian American and especially very proud to be Vietnamese American.

Now but we are not here to talk about me. I assume that the organizers put me up here not only to entertain you but also to give a message. I have used my life’s stories to segway into the delivery of the following message.

Over 2 millions people from Vietnam have received asylum in the United States and around the world. More than a million Vietnamese people have settled in the United States. As we reach the 35th Anniversary of the exodus of April 30th, 1975, we should look back and move forward. Statistics shows that the Vietnamese American community is considered one of the most successful communities in the United States. In the last 35 years, the Vietnamese American community has made great progress in a diversity of areas including sports, entertainment, education, science and technology, medicine, politics and business, etc. But statistics also shows that the number of successful Vietnamese Americans represents only a small fraction of the whole community.

The question is how can we move forward? What kind of obstacles that hinder the progress of our community? Several issues came to my mind immediately. First despite a number of existing community service organizations such as Boat People SOS, Voice of Vietnamese Americans, etc. the community still lacks a keen interest in volunteerism and community service. This is due to the fact that from our tradition and upbringing, our community has been heavily family-based, but not so much community-based. We need to encourage our children, the 2nd generation of Vietnamese Americans to get more involved with the community and to be more willing to provide their volunteering service by our setting good examples for them. It can be as simple as serving as a member of the Parent-Teacher Association or Parent-Teacher Organization of schools of your children or serving as a volunteer in community-based organizations, etc. Also remember my life story of taking on the leadership to make changes at my school. Thus in order to improve or change the society we live in, we need to encourage our children to consider professions that may lead to policy making or law making such as business, politics or law. As you know typical Vietnamese families would encourage their children to pursue financially safe professions such as medical doctors or engineers. While these professions could contribute substantially to the society through their services, they would not naturally lead to positions in policy and law making.

Let me ask you now considering my profession as a professor and administrator of a university a question. What advise would I give now as I conclude my speech? EDUCATION. Naturally educators like me must talk about education. We need to inspire our children, the 2nd generation of the Vietnamese Americans to highly value education that to me is the key to everything. As you can see in my stories above, without a solid high school education in Vietnam and undergraduate and graduate education in Germany and the United States, respectively, I would not be where I am today. Encourage your children while in school to take as many courses as they can and to earn as many degrees as they can. I fully believe a solid education is a solid foundation for success.


Dean, School of Engineering
Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
The Catholic University of America

Dr. Charles C. Nguyen, Vietnamese American, Honored as Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

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