Rotary Peace Fellow Nancy Nguyen’s Journey in Advocacy and Development

Jun 13, 2024
A diverse group of people in an indoor setting stand on either side of a banner reading "Rotary Peace Centre."
Nancy Nguyen and her Rotary Peace Fellow Cohort and the Director of the Rotary Peace Center at their 2023 Fellowship Induction at the University of Queensland in Australia.

Nancy Nguyen is a multi-fellowship winner with a diverse array of academic and professional experience around the world. She is currently a Rotary Peace Fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia, where this fellowship allowed her to pursue a fully funded Master’s in Peace and Conflict Studies. She was also a Gilman Scholar in Uganda in 2018, a Princeton in Asia Fellow in Thailand in 2019–2020, and was accepted to but declined the Peace Corps Indonesia (2019–2020) and the Fulbright U.S. Student Program in Vietnam (2023–2024). ProFellow interviewed Nancy to learn about her personal background and varied fellowship experiences. In this interview, Nancy shares her path to becoming a Rotary Peace Fellow and offers expert advice to aspiring fellowship applicants.

How did you become interested in peace and conflict studies, and how did your previous life experiences prepare you for this fellowship?

As a child of working-class Vietnamese refugees and the granddaughter of a prisoner of war, I have a profound understanding of the intergenerational impact of conflict and the potential for transformative institutional change. Thus, I pursued a Master’s Degree of Peace and Conflict Studies as a Rotary Peace Fellow because I wanted to cultivate a deeper theoretical knowledge, analytical skills, tangible tools, and professional networks needed to advance peace projects. 

While I have conducted immigration casework for refugee families and led leadership workshops for refugee youth with the International Rescue Committee, and advocated for Sustainable Development Goals as an Advocacy and Legislative Co-Chair with the United Nations Association, I have not formally studied peace. Since I am early on in my peacebuilding career, the challenging intellectual environment, comprehensive curriculum, and holistic programming of the fellowship will enable me to reflect critically on my previous work and brainstorm innovative ways to expand past projects.

My longstanding commitment to peace and international development helped prepare me for my fellowship and is reflected in my years of international/local policy, advocacy, and direct service work. Before beginning the Rotary Peace Fellowship, I served as the Civic Engagement Manager for the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, a grassroots advocacy organization advancing the rights of refugees. In this capacity, I spearheaded policy initiatives aimed at a more equitable election process for low-propensity voters and coached refugee youth in providing testimonies to elected officials. This project led to the creation of a Community-Led Surveillance Oversight Board on the use and acquisition of mass surveillance technology and the creation of the Legal Defense Fund for community members facing deportation.

A diverse group of people pose for a group photo in front of a brick wall outdoors.
Nancy Nguyen with fellow Rotary Peace Fellows and Rotary Staff at the 2023 Rotary Peace Annual Seminar.

Moreover, as a Protection Advocate for an implementing partner organization to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I assisted an emergency influx of oceanic Congolese refugees to a Ugandan refugee camp by organizing relocation logistics for those experiencing domestic violence or political persecution within the camp, distributing core life items, and setting up temporary living structures for women and children. I then wrote and presented a final report with observations and program recommendations. In doing so, I enhanced the relocation processes for domestic violence victims by advocating for an unused building to become a temporary shelter, as opposed to having them remain in their homes with their abuser until their relocation documents were processed. I also published/presented international policy proposals to U.S. diplomats as a Public Policy and International Affairs fellow and researched national security policies as a Congressional Intern with Senator Kamala D. Harris in Washington, D.C.

Furthermore, I sought this fellowship because I understand that it will give me more access to career-building opportunities. As a woman of color, first-generation American, and child of refugees, a master’s degree from a Rotary Peace Center would elevate me to a higher professional standing and showcase my commitment and expertise in peace efforts. I will help fill the gender imbalance among peacebuilders, considering that “between 1992 and 2019, women constituted 13% of negotiators and 6% of mediators worldwide.”  Moreover, past Rotary International President Ian Riseley stated when he was president-elect in 2017 that there was a gender imbalance in Rotary membership, with only 22%  of Rotarians being women at that time. Thus, this professional qualification will allow me to take a “seat at a table” that lacks people with my background. Finally, the fellowship provides an international perspective on world issues, as opposed to similar fellowships run by the U.S. government that provide a domestic perspective. International problems require international analyses—analyses which individual nation-states may be less equipped to teach and utilize.

Nancy, with long black hair and a white gown, stands at a podium in front of a laptop, with the Rotary Peace Center banner to her back.
Nancy Nguyen at the 2023 Rotary Peace Annual Seminar.

What is a day in your life like as a Rotary Peace Fellow? Do you have any duties or activities beyond your master’s studies?

As a Rotary Peace Fellow, most of my time is centered on academics. Courses range from theoretical subjects, including Peacebuilding, Security and Development, and The Politics and Power of Nonviolence, to more practical skills-based classes, such as Mediation, Conflict Resolution, and Participatory Communication. 

On a typical weekday, my schedule as a fellow is multifaceted. It involves engaging in physical exercise, such as weightlifting or yoga, fulfilling my remote part-time consultancy role for a U.S.-based Scholarship Foundation, attending classes in person at the University of Queensland, and spending time at cafes reading and writing for my courses. Since the cohort is a tight-knit community, we often have picnics, dinners, sunsets, or beach trips. 

Beyond my academic commitments, I actively contribute to local Rotary Clubs by offering my insights as a guest speaker and collaborating with them on various events. Furthermore, I have previously served as a Research Assistant at the University of Queensland’s Social Change Lab, a non-profit research institution dedicated to exploring strategies for effectively addressing global challenges. In this capacity, I employed methodologies such as hierarchical regression and latent profile analysis to investigate Queenslanders’ attitudes towards peace, democracy, and/or support for political violence. 

As part of the Rotary Peace Fellowship, I participated in funded fieldwork endeavors with prison justice work in Italy and refugee wellness programs in Greece during the summer recess. In Italy, my engagement entailed a collaboration with Antigone, an organization committed to safeguarding human rights in Italian prisons and penal systems. At Antigone, I advocated for policy measures aimed at providing viable alternatives to incarceration for pregnant women, contributed to the expansion of the organization’s Alternatives to Solitary Confinement initiative in Latin America, and authored articles on instances of state violence targeting refugees and asylum seekers.

Nancy, wearing a black coat and gray scarf, sits at a desk with a computer and a yellow Antigone banner to her back.
Nancy Nguyen at the Antigone office base in Rome, Italy for her fieldwork working on human rights in Italian prisons.

In Greece, I worked with Yoga & Sport With Refugees on the island of Lesvos, known historically for its constant influx of refugees. My contributions involved the formulation and evaluation of the organization’s strategy plan and drafting and reviewing reports. Furthermore, I led conducting fitness sessions tailored for refugee women, encompassing yoga, rock climbing, and strength training. 

Moreover, I am scheduled to begin an internship with the Queensland Department of Justice and Attorney-General’s Dispute Resolution Branch at the end of March 2024. During this internship, I will be involved in supporting their Adult Restorative Justice Conferences, a mediation initiative aimed at facilitating dialogue between victims and offenders to address the harm caused by criminal behavior.

You were also a Princeton in Asia Fellow in 2019-2020 in Thailand. Tell us about that experience. What encouraged you to apply, and what did your fellowship experience entail?

My interest in international human rights work with Asian migrants rendered the Princeton in Asia program an optimal choice, allowing me to foster meaningful connections and develop a nuanced understanding of the needs and aspirations of local counterparts through shared experiences such as communal meals, cultural activities, and collaborative work. I also pursued the Princeton in Asia Teaching Fellowship at a university in Thailand to advance my aspirations of a future career in academia. Consequently, I believed that acquiring experience in lecturing at the university level would significantly enhance my career prospects.

Nancy, in a pink dress, stands next to the Rotary Peace Centre banner together with two older women in an indoors setting.
Nancy Nguyen and her Rotary hosts, Michelle and Kim, at a 2023 Rotary Peace Fellow Meet and Greet event.

During my time as a Princeton in Asia Fellow at Payap University in Thailand, I delivered lectures to a diverse cohort of students, spanning from stateless political refugees to economically disadvantaged individuals with behavioral disorders. I formulated tailored learning pathways for 150 students enrolled in eight university-level courses, encompassing subjects such as Logic and Critical Thinking, Public Speaking, Cultures and Customs, and Contemporary Asian Literature and Media. Additionally, I orchestrated campus-wide cultural awareness initiatives, social gatherings, and academic enrichment programs. Furthermore, I devised personalized educational strategies for students grappling with behavioral disorders and mental health challenges.

Additionally, you were offered placements in both the Fulbright Vietnam and Peace Corps Indonesia programs. Why did you decide to ultimately decline these opportunities?

I declined the Fulbright Vietnam scholarship for the 2023-2024 term due to its overlap with the Rotary Peace Fellowship, which I had been offered concurrently. My decision to prioritize the Rotary Peace Fellowship over the Fulbright Vietnam opportunity stemmed from my desire to further my education in peace studies and deepen my academic understanding of the field.

Similarly, I declined an offer from the Peace Corps Indonesia for the 2019-2020 term in favor of participating in the Princeton in Asia fellowship, which also coincided with the Peace Corps placement. My preference for Princeton in Asia was driven by the opportunity it provided for a teaching position at a university, in contrast to the teaching role offered by the Peace Corps at a primary school. Given my aspirations to pursue a career as a Professor in the future, I believed that gaining experience in lecturing at a university level would be more advantageous for my career trajectory.

Finally, what advice would you offer to prospective fellowship applicants?

My advice to prospective fellowship applicants:

  1. Find the right fellowship for you: Finding the right fellowship necessitates alignment with its mission and values. While I have pursued prestigious fellowships in the past, some did not resonate with my objectives, leading to a lack of full commitment to their mission, consequently diminishing my candidacy. Ultimately, compatibility is paramount. The application evaluator should perceive a mutual ideal fit, wherein you align with their objectives and mission, and vice versa.
  2. Reach out to your support networks: Engaging with support networks is indispensable for a successful fellowship application. I actively sought guidance from mentors, professors, and colleagues, and reached out to former fellows through cold emailing, leveraging their insights to refine my applications. Collaboration fosters robust applications, and solitary endeavors are ill-advised.
  3. Get ahead of fellowship deadlines:  Adhering to fellowship deadlines necessitates meticulous planning, requiring patience, commitment, energy, and time. Establishing a timeline delineating key deadlines, goals, and benchmarks facilitates progress tracking. This may require potential sacrifices in social gatherings or even sleep or work. 
  4. Incorporate (1) a sense of urgency and (2) examples of your resiliency in your application: Articulating the urgency of your candidacy is imperative for your application. It must be clear why they should select YOU right NOW. Moreover, demonstrating resilience in your application is pivotal, as fellowships entail various stressors, encompassing academic rigor, cultural adaptation, and personal adversity.
  5. Trust the process and just apply: All fellowship applications are a lengthy and intimidating process. This, coupled with the fear of rejection, often deters people from applying. But you get so much personal insight and deepened networking from the application process. I learned so much about myself, my values, and my dreams through the application process. I even deepened my relationships with my mentors and expanded my professional network by connecting with past fellows. In terms of rejections, they are so normal and do not reflect your value, intelligence, or worth. For every one fellowship I was granted, there were at least two fellowships that rejected me. It is just part of the process.

Interested in pursuing the Rotary Peace or Princeton in Asia Fellowships? Be sure to bookmark them to your free ProFellow account!

Headshot of Nancy in front of a large leafed plant, wearing a white cardigan and bronze blouse, smiling at the camera.Nancy has a robust background in grassroots organizing and advocacy and is dedicated to addressing the needs of migrants and individuals affected by carceral systems. Her professional journey includes providing emergency assistance to Congolese refugees in Ugandan settlement as a Gilman Scholar, immigration casework with the International Rescue Committee, refugee resettlement policy research with the United Nations Association, and spearheading policy initiatives aimed at fostering a more inclusive electoral process for New Americans. Due to her advocacy work, she was recognized as the 2022 Women of the District by Senate President Toni Atkins and 2021 Woman of Distinction by Mayor Todd Gloria. Nancy graduated with Honors from San Diego State University, where she was recognized as the Outstanding Graduating Senior for her bachelor’s degree in Sociology and minor in Public Administration. She is now pursuing her Masters of Peace and Conflict Studies as a fully-funded Rotary Peace Fellow at the University of Queensland (Australia).

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