Patricia Nguyen, a Ph.D. student in performance studies at Northwestern University’s School of Communication, has received a 2014 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

The Soros Fellowship awards 30 “New Americans” — permanent residents, naturalized citizens or children of naturalized citizens — tuition and stipend assistance of up to $90,000 in support of graduate education in the United States. Fellows are selected on the basis of merit, with an emphasis on creativity, originality, initiative and sustained accomplishment. 

Equally versed in sociology, politics and the performing arts, Nguyen understands how trauma is inherited and plans to use art to navigate across political barriers and cultivate spaces for healing. She is a Chicago native, but her family history in Vietnam, before the war and after as refugees in Malaysia and Indonesia, makes her a citizen of the world.

After receiving a sociology degree from Pomona College, Nguyen participated in the Fulbright Student Program in Vietnam. As a volunteer with the Pacific Links Foundation, she used art to develop meaningful relationships with ethnic minority women living in a reintegration shelter at the border of Vietnam and China, where she founded the first arts education program for survivors of sex trafficking.

Northwestern’s performance studies program allows Nguyen to merge performance theory and practice with public policy and international politics. Through her studies, she has found ways to integrate devised theatre, performance poetry, embodied movement, dance and oral histories.  She employs these techniques to communicate with others, share their stories and conduct research.

Nguyen draws inspiration from her parents’ history as refugees from Vietnam. “I grew up listening to stories of my parents’ lives before and after the war, and it stayed with me, living only in my imagination,” she said. “I wanted to live and breathe these moments: these images that I’ve only known through stories.”

On one of her trips to Vietnam, a second cousin showed Nguyen a street lamp her father studied under after his mother would turn off the lights in the house to save money during the war.

“That’s where your dad would spend hours at night reading,” her cousin told her. “The streets were dangerous back then, and the light wasn’t that bright either; but your dad struggled through, and that’s why he’s successful. Education is key; don’t forget that. We’re counting on you.”

For Nguyen, this moment validated her journey. “By returning to this lamp my father studied under, I understood how important education was to him and the danger he went through to succeed.”

Nguyen says her father always told her, “You’ve been afforded an opportunity for an education, and your education is for your community; it’s for others, to help create opportunities for people that may not have had the same chance in their life.”

She took this message to heart. “My education has always been dedicated to social change and creating a better opportunity for people who are traditionally marginalized in terms of race, class, gender or sexuality,” she said.

For Nguyen, being a “New American” means using her heritage to define her future in the U.S. Her work captures a multifaceted, nuanced classification of what it means to be an American and the various routes immigrants take to get here.

“I want to remember the struggle that got us here and form a new vision of creating change for communities that are still struggling,” she said.

In addition to her studies at Northwestern, Nguyen volunteers with Asian Human Services in Chicago, where she facilitates dance and movement workshops with refugees and immigrants facing mental health issues.

Paul and Daisy Soros, Hungarian immigrants and American philanthropists, established the fellowship program for New Americans in December 1997 with a charitable trust of $50 million. The couple wished to give back to the country that gave them so much, while assisting New Americans and calling attention to their extensive and diverse contributions to the quality of life in the U.S.

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