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Athena Nguyen: Building community at home and abroad

Athena Nguyen is a senior public health and political science double-major. When not doing schoolwork, you can find her working in peer advising for the political science department, spending time with her residents as a community facilitator in the Sanfilippo residence hall, or catching up with friends and professors.


In this conversation, we get into how she discovered her passions for political science, public health, and social entrepreneurship, what she has learned from being a community facilitator, what advice she has for first-year students, and her abroad experiences in Peru and Myanmar the past two summers.  

Selected Interview Highlights

GC: What experiences impacted you as a high school student?


AN: I was involved in an academic team called Model United Nations. My first year in high school, one of my teachers, Brian Dodson handed me a flyer and told me, “I think you should try out. It’s incredibly demanding but I think you would be great at it.” I wasn’t really planning on doing any type of team like that.


To be polite, I tried out. I got in, and my life changed for the better. I learned how to be a good debater and able to present my thoughts concisely. The summer before I came to Santa Clara, Brian Dodson passed away. Grieving him and processing his death was very difficult, but it made me realize how important people are and to treasure the relationships I have with my mentors.


GC: What is a lesson you have learned in college?


AN: I’ve gotten very close to many of my professors, which is something I learned to value in high school. I just met with my Chemistry professor form my sophomore year to hang out and chat about what I did over summer and what I plan on doing after graduation.


GC: Were there any especially impactful moments from your trip to Peru for your Jean Donovan Scholarship after sophomore year?


AN: I was feeding this five-year-old child at an orphanage, and he didn’t speak because he wasn’t very developed mentally. We were sitting down playing together, and this woman came up to me and waved me away. I walked away and sat with another nun, who told me that the child’s mom was coming to give him up completely because she had another child at home with special needs, and didn’t have the resources to take care of her son. She had brought a blanket and toys for him, and she picked him up out of his wheelchair and cradled him in her arms.


You could tell that she loved him very much, but it’s difficult if you don’t have the resources to take care of your family. As a public health advocate, it’s very difficult to see someone who cares about their family but can’t take care of them because of something out of their control.


GC: What was your experience as a Global Social Benefit Fellow last summer in Myanmar?


AN: I was in the field in Myanmar for two months with a social enterprise called Koe Koe Tech, a health tech startup. Koe Koe Tech developed an app called Maymay (which means “mother” in Burmese), that has information related to pregnancy and childcare. It has content on nutrition, fitness, hotlines for gender-based violence, online shopping features and is structured like a social newsfeed. We discovered that women really loved the weekly pregnancy updates and weekly quizzes. One of the big issues is that although anyone could get the app in the Google play store, many people didn’t even have an email address.

Our team of three conducted six video interviews, fifteen in-person interviews, and we worked with the Koe Koe Tech marketing team to conduct 162 phone surveys.


At this time last year, I didn’t know what a social enterprise was. This fellowship has definitely altered my view of myself and how I view myself as a leader and advocate for others. I would love to work for an organization that has social impact, and the people that I met in Myanmar constantly inspire me.


GC: Are there any decisions you have made, or habits that have been important for you in college?


AN: One of the best things I have done for myself is being comfortable with asking for help, because there is great humility in it. Most people are willing to help you. Just don’t be afraid to ask.


GC: What is your favorite part about being a community facilitator?


AN: Oh my, I could go on and on about it… In my past two years a CF, I’ve had the opportunity to develop a lot of amazing relationships with my residents. It’s not just about looking out for them or hoping they won’t do anything bad in front of me.


It’s more about them feeling comfortable approaching me about anything… romantic advice or classes, or just doing homework in my room. I have been able to mentor a lot of amazing students and help them see the potential I see in them. To see someone blossom throughout their time at Santa Clara is something amazing that I’ve been fortunate to witness and be a part of. 


GC: What advice would you give to a first-year student?


AN: Don’t be afraid to try things. If you don’t like it, you are not obligated to stay in it… that includes sports, majors, friend groups. Things change in our dynamics all the time and people have to pivot and adapt.

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