Nam Nguyen is the embodiment of the American dream. Nam could be the poster boy. Immigrating from rural Vietnam in 2013, he was 16-years old and, with minimal English skills, new to Washington state. His last two years of high school—and concurrent ESL program—was challenging, but he became the first in his family to graduate high school and go to college.
After struggling through the application and financial aid process on his own, he graduated with a degree in business administration with a concentration in international business and marketing while setting a school record as the first and only student in the university’s history to study abroad on all seven continents. Continuing to excel, he started to work full-time while earning his master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.
Nam now lives in Chicago and works for BP. He has never forgotten the support he found along his journey and dedicates thousands of hours to helping others. His volunteerism has earned him the President’s Volunteer Service Award from the last three administrations as well as the prestigious Diana Award and Starbucks Community Champion Award for his community impact. His work spans tutoring at local libraries, helping those in mental health crises as a counselor for Crisis Text Line, and most recently, writing letters to deployed servicemembers with Soldiers’ Angels. This year alone, Nam has spent more than 1,000 hours writing 1,921 letters with Soldiers’ Angels, an organization designed to provide aid, comfort and resources to military members, veterans and their families.
What inspires you to volunteer?
When I first came to the U.S., I experienced some discrimination and bullying in school. There was a time that I was really depressed and anxious, but I received a lot of support from nonprofit organizations, the school advisor and counselor. Volunteering is the way I can help people in similar situations.
I was first introduced to volunteering because we were required to have a few hours to graduate. I completed that but fell in love with the feeling of being able to help people and make an impact. I’ve been involved ever since, about 12 years now.
I still remember my first volunteer positions. The first was the King County Library System in Washington. I was a K-12 tutor for one of their programs and helped students complete their homework and understand their lessons. My second opportunity was as tutor with Neighborhood House, a nonprofit where we taught English and citizenship classes to immigrants and refugees, helping them realize their dreams of becoming U.S. citizens.
Tell us about your volunteer role with Soldiers’ Angels.
I’m an active volunteer with the letter writing team. We write and design postcards and write letters to send to deployed service members. I have been with them for about a year and a half now.
What are your long-term plans or goals with the organization?
My company provides financial support to eligible organizations that we volunteer with, including Soldiers’ Angels. For every hour that I volunteer with them, the company will match that with financial support. Over the past two years, I’ve helped raise $7,000 through that match. I’ll continue to support them understanding that they not only need people volunteering their time but also financial support for sending out other things like coffee and socks to service members.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Sometimes, I get a letter back from a deployed service member that basically says that my letter really touched them. We forget that a lot of soldiers don’t have anyone who communicates with them from home, so it can feel lonely. Those letters serve as the boost of emotional support that really lets them know they’re not forgotten. I find it extremely rewarding to be able to do something for people who serve the nation.
Do you ever carry on back and forth with people, or is it usually just one or two exchanges?
I do keep in touch with some of them, yes. I’ve only gotten back a few responses. Sometimes people just see a letter and read. For the people who actually respond, they write me back on a postcard of where they are located. Like, if they are deployed to Germany, they would send me back a postcard of Germany, and then I respond back and keep in touch.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
The first thing is the sense of contributing time, energy and effort into serving a higher purpose. I’ve become a more compassionate and empathetic person. I really immerse myself in the experience and have learned more about myself, too.
Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?
Volunteering and engaging in community service is really a good thing. We all have something to contribute. And when we are involved in service, our collective effort will make the world a better place. We can’t just sit back and ask for the world to change. We have to actually be the change.
It’s also a really rewarding experience. Whenever people ask me what my hobbies are or what I enjoy doing, I say I enjoy volunteering. And putting that into the context of my own story as an immigrant who came here and received a lot of support is really emotional to me, and now I try to pay forward.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I really hope that my story inspires others and motivates them to get involved in volunteer service. That would be beautiful.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Nam? Find local volunteer opportunities.