GIANG NGUYEN – Beating the Odds

Giang Nguyen’s career choice is probably not something you hear often from international students in the U.S. Based in Washington DC, she is working as a Digital Campaign Lead at Phone2Action, an award-winning digital grassroots platform company that helps connect the public with elected officials to advocate for the issues they care about. Check out this Hendrix College graduate’s amazing story.

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Leaving Vietnam for boarding school at the age of 14, I thought I knew what I wanted to do. Growing up, I would witness my mother, a middle school math teacher, going out of her way to help students, from tutoring students from disadvantaged backgrounds for free or dressing up as Santa Claus to bring gifts to less privileged students and colleagues. I told myself that helping others was the only way to get a fulfilling career, and at the age of 14, determined that I would end up working for an educational non-profit organization.

That thought followed me throughout high school, and after falling in love with international law and development thanks to the International Baccalaureate program, I declared an International Relations major within the first week of my freshman year. I didn’t have much luck with college application, partially due to my hatred of standardized testing. I decided to choose Hendrix College, a small liberal arts college in Conway, AR because of the scholarship package and the great community vibe. After 3 years at a 120-student international boarding school, I was convinced that a small liberal arts college was the perfect fit for me.

Half way through freshman year, I was asked if I would be interested in attending a social justice conference in Washington, DC. A friend was (and she is still) involved with a lot of immigrant justice organizations and wanted to start a chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum at Hendrix. I signed up, thinking that even if I hated the event, a free trip to DC wouldn’t hurt. That marked my entrance to the social justice world, and throughout my college years, I worked with lots of advocacy organizations in immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, civic engagement and leadership development. People wondered why I was so involved with politics and advocacy as a noncitizen, but to me, the issues were directly affecting me and my future life in the US, regardless of my citizenship status.

Advocacy and tech startup might seem unrelated, but in my case, they really are. I spend a few years working with non-profit organizations, think tanks, foundations,… and became frustrated with their dependency on grants and funding. I tried working in field organizing, and while the energy and the people were inspiring, field work wasn’t for me, as I was growing into more of an introvert. I interned with the Human Rights Campaign my sophomore summer, then came to work for The Raben Group, a political consulting and lobbying firm my junior summer. The Raben Group was my first experience with the private sector, and while the fast-paced environment and efficiency were motivating, the idealist in me was unsettled.

Before talking about my current job, I have to say that my road to where I am at the moment was long and unusual. I didn’t know any foreigner my age working in politics and advocacy in DC. People have told me that my career choice was unrealistic and that I should look into working in finance instead. But I would never be able to work a job that I don’t passionately care about. With every single job and internship, campaigns and events I have participated in, I fell more and more deeply in love with the people and the work. A move to politics and advocacy wasn’t far from my childhood determination to work for an educational non-profit organization; I could see the impact of my work everyday. The people I worked with became my inspirations, and many of them are still close friends and mentors. Even though I am no longer in that field, they set the high bar for determination, devotion and passion that I couldn’t possibly match in my career.

I started my job search at the beginning of my senior year with a long excel list of organizations I would be willing to work for. With connections from 3 years in the social justice field, I was able to get a lot of interviews, but I didn’t feel strong about any particular job. From my 2 previous internships, I knew that Washington, DC was exactly where I wanted to be, but I wouldn’t happy working for a funding-dependent organizations or a consulting firm. I started using NationBuilder for a job my senior year, and that was the first time I ever heard about civic technology (technology for politics or public good). I started learning how to code throughout my senior year as a way to stay sane between writing cover letters during winter breaks, and during Spring break, a friend recommended me to get on Angel List (www.angel.co) to check out startup jobs. Phone2Action was the first company on the list of startups in government and politics on Angel List, and the rest is history.

A few lessons I have learned from the past 4 years:

  • Try to be the best at every thing you do: Even if you don’t like the job, work as if it’s your dream job. You never know where it can take you.
  • Never stop learning: The more skills you have, the more desirable you will be as a candidate. Constantly learning new skills tells the recruiters that you are determined, curious and savvy.
  • Network: Everyone starts out somewhere, so people are generally very willing to share their stories and connect you with others. Send thank-you note, write emails, look for alumni on LinkedIn are all great, but be genuine.
  • If you don’t like what you are doing, do something else: It takes time and effort to find something you love, so keep looking. Know what you want is great, knowing what you don’t want is also wonderful.
  • Don’t be discourage: if you don’t know anyone in the similar background as you in the field, it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible. It’s ok to have an unusual path and career choice.
  • Share your experience: even if you are still searching, share your experience with others. Someone can benefit from it and you can learn something from others as well.

Leaving the advocacy space to join the tech sector, I still believe in all the causes I used to fight for, and also I start identifying with new causes as well. My company is a big advocate of having more women and minority in tech and applying technological innovation to make the public sector more efficient. I truly believe that no matter what you do, you have something you believe strongly in, so I hope that after landing your dream job in the US, you will try to do something to give back to those less fortunate. Everyone gets their start somewhere, right?

P/s: Interested in Giang’s story? Connect with her here!

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