When a friend confided suicidal thoughts, Nam H. Nguyen understood the feeling all too well.
As a teen—shortly after arriving in the United States, hardly knowing any English, and experiencing bullying, homelessness, and other difficulties—he also “was suffering from mental health issues and depression” and had contemplated taking his own life. “That’s why I get involved in these things,” says Nguyen (’20 Busi.), who recently won the prestigious Diana Award for his service, particularly in the area of supporting mental health. “I want to help other students and people who are experiencing similar situations as I did.”
Today, he and his friend “are OK,” says Nguyen, a trained volunteer crisis counselor with global nonprofit Crisis Text Line who’s put in more than 300 hours to support people in pain. This—along with his myriad volunteer experiences since coming to this country nearly 10 years ago—won him global recognition in honor of the late Princess of Wales and her belief, according to the award’s website, that “young people have the power to change the world.” The Diana Award recognizes those ages 9 to 25 for humanitarian work and social action.
“It means a lot to me,” Nguyen says. Princess Diana “really inspired me, and this award is motivating to me to continue to do the things I have been doing and go out there and be the change I want to see in the world. I do believe young people have the power to make changes and tackle the issues they are passionate about.”
Nguyen came to the United States from Vietnam at 16 in 2013, took English as a second language classes, and graduated from Kentridge High School in Kent. In 2015, he started classes at Washington State University, where he discovered a passion for business and travel. He studied abroad on all seven continents, the subject of his TED Talk in Hanoi in 2019.
After graduation, he went to work for the global energy company BP, moving from Kent to Chicago and now Bellingham for work. At each location, he continued to give his time and talents by tutoring immigrants and refugees in English and in preparation for their citizenship test, delivering meals and learning materials to students and seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic, and writing letters to US military members stationed overseas.
“I received tremendous support from people when I first came to this country and in school at WSU,” Nguyen says. “I want to give back.”
He encourages other young alumni to do the same. “It can be something very simple. But collectively these efforts make the world a better place.”
In addition to working full-time and volunteering, he is pursuing a master’s degree in educational technology online through Johns Hopkins University.
Christine Oakley, the retired director of Global Learning International Programs at WSU, nominated Nguyen for the award, which was presented virtually July 1, Diana’s birthday. Oakley met Nguyen shortly after he arrived in Pullman. “I’ve watched him grow over the last 10 years—in confidence and from any setbacks that he may have had,” she says. “He is a very persistent and talented and driven individual, but he’s also a genuinely kind and thoughtful human being.
“He has a kind of inner sense of wanting to give back, and he has a remarkable story. It’s an immigrant story, but it’s also unique to him. When he sets out to do something, he does it.”