Viet Nguyen: 'The Idea of Deserving'

Viet Nguyen, one of two graduating seniors chosen as orators for the 249th Commencement, delivered an address titled "The Idea of Deserving" on the College Green on Sunday, May 28.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Throughout my life, I have only seen my mom cry two times. The first time was at T.F. Green Airport four years ago as she was about to drop me off on the plane after Orientation. I still remember the tears rolling down her face as we embraced in an overly dramatic goodbye hug.

The second time I saw her cry was four months ago, when I came home from winter break with my ears pierced and my hair dyed blond. I actually still don’t know which time she cried harder. I love you, mom.

When I was deciding between colleges, one of my close mentors gave me advice that I still pass on. He said every college will provide you with more or less the same education, but they will each shape you in different ways. Imagine all of the different versions of yourself at the end of four years at each of the schools, and choose the version of yourself that you like the most.

For me, that school was Brown.

VIDEO: Viet Nguyen: "The Idea of Deserving"

These last few months, I’ve thought a lot about this advice. How has Brown changed me, us? It would be easy to point out all the obvious ways we’ve all changed. Like many of us, I came into Brown as pre-med — and like many of us, I am no longer pre-med.

My entire freshman year, I barely spoke to anyone because I felt so intimidated. It felt like everyone in my dorm had a clear sense of purpose and vision. They had things that they were good at, things they were passionate about. They were working on diversity and inclusion in the physics department, winning hackathons or working to tackle the spread of malaria. There were clear reasons why they were chosen to be at Brown.

On the other hand, I wore a bathrobe 24/7 and slept through my 2 p.m. biology seminar on a weekly basis. I hadn’t read work from any of the leading thinkers and didn’t understand most of the words used in my first-year English class. Who is Nietzsche and why is his name so hard to pronounce? I shopped and dropped CS-15 [a computer science course] three times. It got to the point where [faculty member] Andy Van Dam thought I was a teaching assistant for the course because I showed up year after year.

By mid-sophomore year, I was just about done. I was certain that I was in the wrong place.

That year, I began attending workshops on this thing they call imposter syndrome, something that I’m sure many of us went through, trying to reassure myself that I did belong. And each talk said more or less the same thing. The admissions office does not make mistakes. You have grit. You’ve worked hard. You deserve to be here.

As I progressed through Brown, there was more and more reinforcement of this idea. Advertisements and fundraising campaigns all hammered in this point: Brown students are different. We are critical thinkers. We are special. Needing to believe that I had a reason to be at Brown, I drank it up.

With this newfound confidence, I saw more subtle things change in my behavior. I noticed that the same ideas verbalized with academic language suddenly had more weight, and so I changed the way I talked. I changed my vocabulary. I tried to catch up with my classmates and began citing theories in everyday conversations, using words that were unnecessarily long and convoluted.

While these things aren’t inherently bad, what eventually happened was that I began to place more and more value on those behaviors and consequently, the people that embodied them. It shifted who I saw as "impressive," who I saw as "deserving."

I saw the repercussions of this troubling academic elitism take shape around me earlier this semester when the travel ban was instated. Many of us shared Facebook posts of an MIT student unable to re-enter the country. In our posts, we cited his academic potential, his future contributions to academia, as to why this was a travesty. While unintentional and well-meaning, this line of thought drew the connection between someone’s ability to contribute to society, their accomplishments and their intelligence, with how deserving they were of their rights. What does this say about the student from a less-flashy school with a less-than-stellar academic performance? Are they any less deserving?

It is especially critical to remember this during a time when celebratory terms of congratulations and words like deserve, earned and merit are swimming in the air.

We have worked hard. We have accomplished. But an Ivy League education — how ever many academic scholars we can quote, whether we’ve read Marx or coded Tetris — does not make us inherently any better or any more deserving than anyone else.

Addressing our own insecurities about inadequacy does not mean we have to overcompensate by turning to elitism just to increase our sense of self-worth.

If you want to see hard work, look at my mom and my aunts, who moved here from Vietnam without knowing a word of English and taught themselves to be dental assistants. If you want to see grit, look at my dad and grandfather, who worked until 4 a.m. every day delivering newspapers to make ends meet. Don’t just look at us.

If Brown has taught me one thing, it’s that intelligence can’t be captured by a piece of paper.

Today, as we obtain our degrees, remember that we should not be celebrating how the degree differentiates us from the rest of world. We should be celebrating the responsibility that it provides us to ensure that others have the same opportunities that we had at Brown. We need to use the platform that a Brown diploma gives us to equalize the field to the point where having an Ivy League degree is no longer necessary to be heard.

The inspired fire that I see every day in my classmates’ eyes to tackle injustices: that is why I chose Brown. My peers, the tireless advocates sitting here today that continue to fight for a better world, that is the person that I wanted to become at the end of my four years. And to me — sharing that experience — that is the true value of Brown.

We need to continue to fight the good fight, but remember that we cannot do good work simply sitting at the top of the Ivory Tower.

Thank you to the Class of 2017 for an incredible four years. Let’s fight the good fight. And let’s win.