Kelly Nguyen smiling
2020 Virginia Commonwealth University alum Kelly Nguyen is a recipient of a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs fellowship, which supports individuals who want to pursue a career in the foreign service of the U.S. Department of State. Contributed photo.

VCU alum is the recipient of a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program fellowship

Studies at VCU helped lay the foundation for the work Kelly Nguyen hopes to do with the U.S. foreign service.

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Kelly Nguyen, a 2020 Virginia Commonwealth University alum, is the living definition of overachiever. Her love of learning can only be equaled by her unending energy and enthusiasm. She is now channeling that energy into a future career with the U.S. foreign service.

“I have dreamed of becoming a diplomat. My parents, Vietnamese refugees, came to the U.S. for the values and ideals that I will be promoting abroad, so I can't think of a better way to serve my country,” she said.

A first-generation American, Nguyen, who speaks Spanish and Portuguese and understands Vietnamese, first became interested in learning languages when she was in a Spanish immersion program in elementary school in Northern Virginia.

Her interest in languages and learning about different cultures continued to grow in middle and high school. During her junior year at the Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, she had the opportunity to intern for U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida. As part of her internship, she attended a briefing of the U.S. foreign service. That sparked her interest in working for the foreign service and the U.S. Department of State.

VCU provided valuable opportunities

Her studies at VCU helped lay the foundation for the work she hopes to do with the foreign service.

Nguyen came to the university after becoming familiar with it through her sister, Kristina Nguyen, a 2018 VCU graduate with a degree in chemistry. Her brother, Victor, is currently a junior at VCU majoring in business.

“Being at VCU gave me enough independence, but I wasn’t too far away from family,” she said. “In hindsight, I didn't realize how vital VCU being located in Richmond would have on my college experience. It gave me great opportunities to intern in the House of Delegates and work with local nonprofits (Sacred Heart Center) teaching [English for speakers of other languages]. But it also allowed me to explore my identity in a diverse urban setting.” 

Nguyen served as a resident assistant in Rhoads Hall for almost two years and Cary and Belvedere for five months and was in the VCU Globe (now part of VCU Transform) program, a living and learning community, as well as in the Honors College. Through Globe, she studied in Oaxaca, Mexico, after her freshman year.

“I taught English and also took a Spanish course along with a Globe course,” she said.

During her junior year, she interned for Del. Alfonso Lopez in Virginia's House of Delegates.

In April 2020, she received a Boren Award that allowed her to start learning Portuguese. She spent eight weeks in an intensive Portuguese studies program that summer and also learned about Mozambique's post-colonial culture.

“It was supposed to be in person at the University of Florida, but because of the pandemic it was virtual,” she said. Since we weren't able to travel to Mozambique in the fall of 2020, we continued our Portuguese studies through Saturday classes. Travel to Mozambique kept getting delayed, so I eventually just left the program and graduated.”

After graduating from the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences in 2020 with a dual degree in political science and international studies, as well as a dual minor in Spanish and gender sexuality and women’s studies, Nguyen interned for the International Rescue Committee, assisting refugees and immigrants applying for citizenship. 

In March 2021, she was awarded a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship to continue her Portuguese studies. She was supposed to travel to Brazil for eight weeks during the summer and, once again, the program was virtual because of the pandemic.

Earning her master’s and joining the foreign service

In January, she began working at the State Capitol in the clerk’s office of the House of Delegates as an indexing and enrolling assistant.

This spring, she will travel to Brazil to teach English thanks to a Fulbright Scholar Award. And in 2023, she will begin her Charles B. Rangel International Affairs fellowship. She was supposed to start the program this year, but received a “one-year deferral because of the Fulbright,” she said.

The Rangel fellowship, funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by Howard University, supports individuals who want to pursue a career in the foreign service of the U.S. Department of State. Nguyen worked directly with the National Scholarship Office at VCU to apply for the fellowship. The office supports students and alumni who are interested in applying for prestigious national and international scholarships.

Nguyen will receive funds for a two-year master’s degree in an area of relevance to the foreign service. The grant also provides extensive professional development opportunities, including internships, mentors and skills training.

She’s excited about being a Rangel fellow, she said.

“It’s hard to wrap my mind around it. I’m speechless because I worked so hard for it,” she said. “I’m also excited to travel. That’s a major plus.”

She admits there are some personal challenges for her, including imposter syndrome, where you doubt your abilities and experience feelings of self-doubt.

“It’s like thinking I don’t belong,” she said. “I think that’s common in minority women. However, the purpose of the Rangel is to diversify the state department, so I will definitely lean on my cohort and mentors for support.” 

After she graduates from the Rangel program, she will spend five years working with the foreign service.

“I hope to continue being a foreign service officer after that and reach higher levels of senior positions in the department,” she said.

As far as assignments, Nguyen has a soft spot for the Western Hemisphere, she said.

“Argentina comes to mind. My mom said it would be awesome for me to go to Vietnam,” she said. “I’ll go wherever they need me.