Study abroad program helps a driven Vietnamese-American high school student solidify her passion.
Highlighting the inspiring story and journey of 2011 APSA Scholar, Nhu Le.
On April 22nd, APSA hosted an open house in Beijing and invited three APSA Alumni currently studying or working in China to share their personal stories and journeys since their high school study abroad experience. During the event Nhu shared her inspiring personal story and how participating in a community service project during the 2011 APSA Scholar program provided her with the opportunity to volunteer with migrant children at the Dandelion School. This experience impacted her deeply and according to Nhu, helped solidify her passion to pursue gender inequality studies at Harvard and carve out a career path in international development.
Here is an interview that helps shed some light on the incredible person Nhu has become and the positive impact she is having in the world.
APSA Alumni Interview: Nhu Le
Interview and article by: Tom Rose
Meet Nhu Le. Observant, driven, and compassionate, Nhu is a Vietnamese-American APSA scholar from 2011. An inspiring example of the synthesis of travel, academics, and community-minded service, Nhu is proof that when an exemplary student gets the travel bug, the possibilities are limitless.
“An inspiring example of the synthesis of travel, academics, and community-minded service, Nhu is proof that when an exemplary student gets the travel bug, the possibilities are limitless.”
Nhu came to Boston from Vietnam with her family as a 7-year-old and quickly became immersed in school and extra-curriculars. “I was such a nerd,” Nhu recalls. In high-school, a ten-day trip to Eastern Europe sparked her interest in travel. In 2011, Nhu traveled to Beijing for the first time with APSA. The Asian continent then became the focal point of her future work. Faced with the contrast between Beijing’s sprawling skyscrapers and the migrant worker camps sandwiched between, her passion for combating the issues of wealth inequality in developing countries blossomed.
Nhu graduated high school at the top of her class, then continued to Harvard to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies, focusing on development and gender studies. While studying, Nhu’s impressive list of accolades got longer and longer: she spent a semester abroad in the UK at the University of Cambridge, she founded a nonprofit summer camp for Vietnamese youth, she worked at a civic tech start-up to connect public office holders to their constituents, and she even directed a cross-cultural conference on social entrepreneurship.
After completing her bachelor’s degree in 2017, Nhu didn’t slow down. She returned to Beijing for a master’s degree in Global Affairs as a Schwarzman Scholar, a one-year fellowship program designed to connect China with the US through a deep study of public policy, business, international relations. Graduation was just a few weeks ago, and now, Nhu is off to start her life’s work improving livelihoods in developing countries. This October, she’ll be relocating to the Philippines to begin as an Associate for IDinsight, where she’ll be working across Southeast Asia to evaluate and implement more effective international development programs.
We caught up with Nhu to chat a bit about her study abroad experience, gender studies, liberal arts and her passions for social impact. Enjoy the conversation and get to know Nhu.
You’ve been a driven student since grade school, and you’re very accomplished. It seems like you never slow down. Where does your drive come from?
This is a hard question. Sometimes I think it comes from being an immigrant and a first-born who remembers vividly what the transition from Vietnam to the US was. One of my first school memories in the US was looking around during gym class, and thinking I have to beat all of these kids, who are so different from me, because I can’t let them underestimate me. However, my brother, only 3 years younger than me, is a very different person. So, I think that’s only part of it. The other component combination of purpose and opportunity.
I’ve always cared about not just excelling at my work, but also affecting others through that work. It’s not entirely altruistic, because I get a lot of satisfaction from it. And at my high school, Boston Latin School, I had the resources to reach for those stars: a diverse set of extracurricular opportunities, incredibly kind and engaging teachers, an emphasis in the school model on service. There was also few alternatives. I was very awkward as a child. I never did sports, and rarely hung out with friends. School and my extracurricular life became my outlet to integrating with other Americans’ lives.
Take us back to your experience on your first trip outside the US through Eastern Europe.
I just remember a whirlwind exploration of breathtaking cities — just soaking up the history, past and present, as I look for the next cute café or restaurant. In many ways, those first memories of walking the streets of Krakow or Prague — while a high school student in these pre-mobile-data-everywhere days, can you imagine? My teacher had guts — still define what my ideal form of traveling is. There was so much effervescence in the world that I had never known or seen, before that first trip abroad. Since then, I’ve learned to appreciate other styles of travel: lazy relaxation weekends with friends; nature trips pushing your body to the limit for breathtaking scenery; working and living in a city, when it’s possible to savor the process of discovery. But that first style of travel is still my favorite: dropping down into some wonderful city with charming neighborhoods for a couple of days and running at a breathless pace from one discovery and experiment to the next.
At Harvard you studied social sciences, specifically focusing on gender and racial theory, especially in developing countries. What’s your connection to this topic, and how does it factor into the focus of your work today?
My interest stems partially from my background, I’m sure. I am, after all, a Vietnamese-American immigrant, who also happens to be low-income, female, and on the queer spectrum. I’ve never had the luxury of not thinking about these things. I live out the reality of these “abstract” gender and racial theories, though I must caveat my version really is not the worst.
But though I acknowledge that, I refuse to minimize their academic legitimacy and importance. They are not “vanity me” topics. I study them because they are academically engaging and relevant. Period. Whether you’re studying economics, political science, or anthropology, to ignore the developing world, the marginalized, is to miss out on what’s really happening. One of my favorite social thinkers, Foucault, wrote that changes comes from what happens at the margins. And isn’t change the core thing we social scientists want to understand?
“Whether you’re studying economics, political science, or anthropology, to ignore the developing world, the marginalized, is to miss out on what’s really happening. One of my favorite social thinkers, Foucault, wrote that changes comes from what happens at the margins. And isn’t change the core thing we social scientists want to understand?”
HVIET Summer Program | Vietnam | Meet Harvard Students
HVIET is week-long liberal arts summer camp for Vietnamese high school students organized by Harvard students. We bring…
You founded HVIET, a liberal arts summer camp for high schoolers in Vietnam. What’s the value of a liberal arts education? What’s the value of study abroad experiences?
My degree is the epitome of liberal arts. It is literally called Social Studies, which is the most fruit-cakery degree name I’ve ever heard. I can, and often do, a 3-sentence summary that includes the words “an honors concentration at Harvard” to validate the work I did in Social Studies. But nothing will make it sound less silly and render it as equally bankable as a degree in Computer Science. But I will never regret it, because it put so many opportunities — including study abroad experiences, from University of Cambridge to Schwarzman — in my path, and because it defines how my mind functions.
I truly think it it’s helped bring about my successes, whether founding that summer camp, or working at a multi-billion dollar valued Chinese start-up. Of course, I luckily have the brand name to get my feet through the door, after which I can prove myself. That’s a luxury not every liberal arts student has, so I’m not totally convinced a liberal arts degree financially pays off for everyone. But that’s why I try to advocate for it, and to provide relevant experiences to students who may not necessarily do a full liberal arts degree, but will reap some benefits from intellectual exposure to it.
You’ve just wrapped your fellowship as a Schwarzman Scholar in Beijing, seven years after your initial trip to China with APSA. How is this time different from your last, both for you as an individual, as well as the city itself?
China is utterly wild. Everyone says it moves time-jumpingly fast, but it’s impossible to truly grasp this until you’re back 6 years later, and everything has literally changed. Of course, part of that is because I’m an adult now. I have a cell phone, a laptop, and the ability to engage with the city in ways I never did now. So I’m seeing a very different side of Beijing this time around. But I also know for sure that the Beijing I knew years ago is shrinking, maybe entirely gone.
There’s the everyday things — food delivery and mobile payments and dockless bike sharing. But there are also the deeper things — the opportunities, lifestyles, and attitudes of both foreigners and Chinese people in Beijing. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to see all this firsthand and am glad that China has again shaped me in a vital way, at another moment of transition in my life. Ages ago, it was as I was beginning to apply to colleges. Now, it’s as I head into my first job. Fingers crossed it works out well again this time.
Help us reach more youth like Nhu every summer and you will have a lasting impact in more young lives and also the world.
Donate $5-10 towards the APSA Scholarship Fund campaign today! All funds directly support youth who would not otherwise afford this life-changing opportunity.
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