Vi Nguyen once thought that her success story was the norm.
When she was nine years old, Vi and her family emigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam, and Vi enrolled in Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa as an English-as-a-Second-Language student. With help and guidance from teachers and counselors, Vi thrived and went on to earn a college degree from Yale University.
Working as an analyst in the U.S. Congressional Budget Office and researching Pell Grants and Federal Student Loans, Vi realized that her success story was the exception. For many low-income students, higher education remained out of reach.
Determined to make a difference, Vi sought a way to use her management and analytical skills to help schools serve students better. EP was the pathway she needed.
In this Q&A, Vi shares more of her leadership journey with EP.
1. Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up? What was your educational experience like as a kid?
I was born in a village called Vinh Phuoc, a five-hour motorbike ride from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. My family and I immigrated to the U.S. when I was nine. We settled in Iowa—where I enrolled in Des Moines Public Schools as an English-as-a-Second-Language student.
While restarting their lives at the age of 40, and working overtime at blue-collar jobs, my parents instilled in me the belief that education was my route to improve my family’s quality of life. I had a lot of help navigating the K-12 and higher education systems—from caring teachers, counselors, grants, and scholarship programs.
2. Before becoming an Education Pioneers Fellow you researched the budgetary effects of programs like Pell Grants and Federal Student Loans, while managing VietHope. Could you tell me about your role with both of these organizations? What sparked your interest in pursuing a career in education?
I should start with VietHope. I had been involved in fundraising and program management efforts since 2008. Currently, I manage the human capital, analytics, and grants components of our nonprofit. For example, I recruit, onboard, and assign strategic projects to our 30 staff volunteers; design and analyze surveys to study the effectiveness of our programs; and maintain the relationships with two grantmakers who together fund 100 scholarships and two enrichment camps for our students each year. While I had always invested my time in education, I was not ready to pursue a career in it until my time in Washington, D.C.
In D.C., working with public policy analysts and economists to research the Pell Grants and Federal Student Loans, I learned that my story was not the norm, that higher education and the opportunities attached to it remained out of reach for many low-income students—they could not afford it, or they were not prepared enough to excel, or they graduated with few job prospects and strapped with loans. And I knew firsthand through my tutoring work at a local school that we were losing students as early as elementary school. These experiences propelled me to look for ways to apply my management and analytical skills to helping schools serve our students better.
3. When did you hear about Education Pioneers? What made you decide to apply to the Analyst Fellowship?
I was browsing through the backgrounds of graduate students in the education field to survey the opportunities in the sector when I chanced upon Education Pioneers (EP). My friends who knew of EP spoke highly of the organization and the mission. I remember thinking then, and believe it now, that EP was created for people like me—those searching for a way into the work!
4. Tell me about your experience as an Analyst Fellow with the City Colleges of Chicago and the project you worked on.
I joined the Strategy and Institutional Intelligence Department at the City Colleges of Chicago—the district office for the seven community colleges of the city that serve 120,000 students a year. The organization had just rolled out a new data warehouse and initiated a new performance management system to meet the newly-minted five-year targets. My manager and I monitored metrics like enrollment, credit attainment, retention, and graduation, and engaged with managers of student-facing staff on how to use data to segment and better serve our students.
5. What were your major takeaways from your time as an Analyst Fellow?
I entered the Analyst Fellowship to learn about the skillsets needed in the education space. I’ve learned that we need talent in every part of the school system—in the classrooms, in human resources, technology, analytics, and leadership. There are many pitfalls for children growing up, especially in low-income neighborhoods, but there are also countless opportunities for us to help them pursue a better life through education. Fighting ignorance, violence, and poverty is jarring, hard, and requires multifaceted solutions—all the more need for a team with a diverse skillset.
The other major takeaway is related to education technology and data. The fanfare is warranted because I think either or both can make organizations and leaders more efficient, nimble, and informed to better serve our students. Many of the failures of our sector, though, stem from very human challenges. No matter how much time we invest in perfecting that technology or analyzing that data—we won’t see progress until our work catalyzes a change in how our colleagues work with students day-in and day-out.
6. What happened after the Fellowship? Does your Fellowship experience impact your current work and if so how?
I decided to put off graduate school to continue working at the City Colleges of Chicago. The next stage of the work is helping teams delve into operational data to find lessons learned so they can reiterate and improve the education and services that they’re providing to our students.
7. What is the most challenging or surprising thing about working in education?
Often, I’m either frustrated that we’re running before we’ve learned to walk, or we’re dragging our feet when we should be sprinting. What is most frustrating for me is that our sector doesn’t invest enough time in learning, reiterating, and relearning. Innovation requires learning from each other, and from those outside our walls, and even from those beyond our sector.
8. What would you say to someone who is considering applying to an EP Fellowship, or considering working in education?
Figure out what you’re good at, and make sure those are things that you enjoy doing—then join us. There is a huge need and an even bigger opportunity to reinvent how schools, students, and whole communities engage in learning. We need all the talent we can get!