My name is Gai-Hoai T. Nguyen and I graduated from PLU in 2009 with a double major in Hispanic Studies and Global Studies. While attending PLU, I had the opportunity to study abroad for one month in Oviedo, Spain and two semesters in Oaxaca, Mexico. Oviedo was a great experience that strengthened my Spanish and allowed me to see beautiful places of cultural and historical importance; however, Oaxaca remains the program and place that has had the greatest impact in my life. Living and studying in Oaxaca for 4 months during my sophomore year, and then again during my junior year, gave me the time and space to completely immerse myself in Oaxaca. People can chose to visit Oaxaca, even live there for an extended period of time, but their experiences vary greatly depending on the individuals’ desire to open-up to, connect with, and truly live in Oaxaca. I feel that Oaxaca and the Program impacted my life so much because I was provided the resources and I decided to completely immerse myself in the program and in Oaxaca City.
What does this mean? It means I took many valuable (literature, history, anthropology, sociology) classes, participated in an internship that allowed me to connect to a great group of people whom I would never have otherwise met, let alone form relationships with that last to this day. I went out and made friends and took advantage of my intercambio sessions to improve my Spanish and exchange information and ideas with a young, Oaxacan woman. I tried my best to respectfully insert myself into my host family as much as possible. I made it a point to be a family member, but at the same time, be conscious that I am also a long-term guest.
The Oaxaca program also allowed me to see and make many connections with NGO and non-profit organizations in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Mexico City, as well as private institutes such as the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca (ICO), which later served as my place of employment. After graduation, I spent one year working in Mexico. Afterwards, I returned to school and obtained a master’s degree in Southeast Asian Studies at the UW’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. It was a great program, but I felt I was missing an element in my life and that element was Latin America. It was my time as Assistant Director at the ICO and my two Oaxaca study abroad trips that gave me the experience, confidence, and desire to continue my relationship with Latin America and apply for the Assistant Director position at LACS.
Currently I serve as Assistant Director for the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies’ Latin American & Caribbean Studies (LACS) program and also Assistant Director at the UW Center for Human Rights (UW CHR), also housed at the Jackson School. I frequently utilize language skills I gained in my undergraduate major, skills that were bolstered, specifically, by the study abroad programs. Also, my knowledge of, and experience with, Oaxaca transfers to other parts of Latin America, which helps better facilitate my interactions with our LACS and UW CHR partners in Latin America. For example, at LACS, I have emailed and held Skype conversations with visiting lecturers from Latin America. Also, I use my Spanish speaking abilities and experience with Mexican culture to facilitate many financial and administrative aspects of UW CHR’s collaboration with the Institute for Human Rights at the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas,” on our Human Rights, Historical Memory and Justice in El Salvador project. My study abroad experiences enriched my personal life while equipping me with skills I frequently apply to my professional life today.