Development Manager, and former Summer 2015 OCA National Intern, Marie Nguyen shares how the OCA National Internship Program impacted her career.

My family fled war torn Vietnam in the late 80s in the second wave of the Vietnamese refugees.  Escaping in the dark of the night with nothing than the clothes on their backs, my father, mother who was expecting, and 5 siblings fled on a small fishing boat with 36 other Vietnamese refugees. Any valuable belongings were sold and any gold that could be acquire was hidden in their mouths between their cheeks and gums so they wouldn’t be robbed. My oldest two siblings had already escaped first in hopes of meeting with my family at some unknown time and opportunity, but there was no promise. They spent 6 days and 5 nights at sea with no water and food. My siblings had to lick off the rainwater and sweat on my father’s back to hydrate themselves. On the third day, hope seemed bleak as they were stranded in open water until they were lucky enough to be pulled into shore by Filipino fisherman, which led to three years in a Filipino refugee camp. Eventually, my family made their way to America, and then I came along. I was their American baby. My Vietnamese name is Nhu Y, which translates to “wish” - my parents wish came true, they made it to America. I was the embodiment of their American dream.

Although my family went through all these hardships, it wasn’t necessarily something that was openly discussed. We all knew the facts, but beyond that we never dove deeper. All I knew as a child was that we survived, we made it, and we were blessed and we should be thankful. We should work hard, keep our heads down, and not question the status quo. We should assimilate, and really more or less be the “model minority”. This silencing was not from desire but from necessity. To protect oneself from reliving the trauma. It was too painful.

All I knew was to be the model minority, whether or not I fit into that mold, that mold was only box that was given to me, or so I had thought. All I knew was my identity as a daughter of refugees, and not much beyond that. But even then, I knew that I never lived through the trauma, but I am a byproduct. It wasn’t a story I experienced, but it was passed down to me.

But what I didn’t realize was that there was so much more to this story, it doesn’t stop there.

It wasn’t until OCA’s internship program, where I began to see life in a more nuanced light.

Truth be told, I applied to this program because it was a paid internship… which is extremely hard to come by. For a college student living on a diet of top ramen, this sounded like a financial haven. But little did I know that in 10 weeks, the very course of my life was going to change.  

I was nervous applying to the program because my knowledge of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) advocacy community was very limited but I’m not sure what it was, but OCA saw something in me, and I’m forever grateful for this opportunity. At the time, when I was debating taking this internship, to move across the country and leave sunny California. I may not have known it at the time but it was a leap of faith in myself.

At first I felt very out of place, there was a whole new realm, the AAPI advocacy community. I didn’t understand what my role was within it or how my voice does matter and that there is power to our communities stories.

I knew I was Asian and that I lived in America, but I had no idea what being Asian American meant to me. If you had asked me four years ago, what does identity mean to me? I couldn’t even being to string the words together.

It wasn’t until I sat in a room with other students from all over the country, that I began to unpack who I was. And why I was. Through the internship’s Sama Sama sessions where we all shared our individual stories, we found that we had a collective story. And truly, there is nothing more powerful and humbling that realizing that you are not alone.

My sense of self unraveled, to become whole. Prior to the internship program, it felt like my body and mind were disconnected. OCA brought me back down to earth, rooted me, and helped me find my self worth and value in this bigger picture of life. OCA taught me because we have a soft voice doesn’t mean we have a small voice.

The OCA internship program forced me to look into the mirror and really look deeper into my hopes dreams and aspirations. Why I do what I do, and just who am I really. The program challenged me and pushed me to the edges of who I thought I was. Growing up, if someone were to ask me what my values were, I would just repeat what I my parents believed. But now being older and going though a program like this, that gives you a space to uncover — I was able to decide for myself what informs my values and how to bring my whole self into the conversation.

The internship helped me find myself and gave me purpose. I couldn’t believe that I spent so long wandering, feeling lost and confused. Almost angry, but angry isn’t the right word to encapsulate how I felt about not fully understanding all my intersections of life; as a woman, a Vietnamese American, an Asian American, and a daughter of refugees.

Three years ago, I started as an intern and three years later I stand here today as a staff member of the very organization that gave me hope and direction in life.  If I had a conversation with my 18 year old self, I would have never thought I’d be standing here tonight, and I have to say, I’m darn proud of myself. For finding and piecing together bits of myself that were lost but also discovering pieces that I didn’t even know existed.

This internship program gave me a chance, when I didn’t want to give myself one, I didn’t know if I even deserved it. This program is truly so near and dear to my heart because it’s helped my heart grow twice in size and triple in strength. It gave me purpose, drive, belonging, things that are truly priceless and immeasurable. I can stand here and go on and on about this program and how it’s so amazing but just looking out at this crowd tonight I can see its testament. There have been past interns that have turned into chapter leaders such as Vicki Shu, Mike Lok, Cliff Yee, and many more. I see my past intern Ben Tran who I’ve had the honor of mentoring just got a job with the California capital, there’s our very own Monica lee, our Associate Director of Programs, and of course Kendall Kosai our Deputy Director.

This program speaks for itself.