by Tram Nguyen, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, English
T: It’s great to have this opportunity to converse with you. To begin, could you describe your education background? What motivated you to pursue higher education? I ask these questions of my own students in informal writing exercises as well, to give them the opportunity to reflect on the value and obstacles of their educational journey.
A: My mother is a first-generation Italian-American and her parents always emphasized that it was important to be an educated person, to be well-read. Education was a way out of coal mines of Pennsylvania, and despite the Depression, she was able to finish high school at cusp of WWII. In those times, a young woman obtaining a high school diploma was no small feat. My dad was able to attend college on the GI Bill and worked as a scientist at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. In the end, my two siblings and I all went on to obtain our doctorates.
T: Wow! That is fantastic. What is your favorite memory as a student, or least favorite memory?
A: Well, my least favorite memory is of my tenth-grade English teacher. She saw communism hiding everywhere and had such punitive methods. In order to get an A, you had to keep a vocabulary log and research where these words were used. I would immediately go to The New York Times. It’s funny but while we all hated the exercise back then, a bunch of us were recently reminiscing over social media about these vocabulary logs and our favorite words.
T: That is funny. Teachers can make such a difference in the life of a student, for the better or the worst. Why did you choose to major in Anthropology?
A: I was drawn to anthropology because it has a little of everything: myth, ritual, science.
My undergraduate professor at Fordham was Karen Stothert and my graduate professor at Illinois was Donald W. Lathrap, who we called “El Gran Caiman”. Both conducted archaeological research in Ecuador, which is how I ended up working there as well.
I worked in coastal Ecuador in the town of Machalilla, a little fishing village in the province of Manabí. The archaeological site, Los Frailes, overlooked the Pacific Ocean, and the research was great, but of course what is most memorable to me are the people and how warmly they welcomed me into their community.
This was back in the 1980s but through the wonders of the internet I have managed to maintain contact with a few people through Facebook or through emails passed on by mutual friends.
T: That must have been an incredible experience. Did you have the opportunity to interact with the locals or try the food?
A: Of course I was totally dependent on the local community for food and for their labor on the site. I had some funding from Fulbright and from the Banco Central del Ecuador to pay for workers and a cook. My absolute favorite Ecuadorean dishes are ceviche and seco de chivo.
T: Ceviche is wonderful, but I don’t eat meat, sadly. Could you describe your experience with or exposure to community colleges?
A: When I was in high school in Maryland, Harford Community College had an opera program and they would bring operas to Maryland our town. My siblings and I would go to these events and it dawned on me at some point that part of their mission was community outreach and to be a community resource. I think community colleges are a good first steps for all sorts of students: adults who want to be retrained could take night classes; traditional students who find tuition at four-year schools prohibitive; immigrants who are second-language learners; people who have family obligations and who might have to work part time. And it’s a good pathway to transfer to four-year school, especially here at CUNY.
When I was a graduate student, I worked as an advisor to help undergraduates make their transition to four-year schools, and that was really rewarding. It is crucial that community colleges maintain strong ties with their communities and that they become a focal point for the community. We need to adapt as the community adapts, to meet people where they are, to be an engine for economic development.
T: What do you think is the role of community colleges in this intellectual and political era?
A: It is a troubling time. What we can do best is to meet the local needs and to be a resource for the community because many people can’t go away to pursue their education.
This whole tension between education to get a job versus education to get educated is shortsighted. The jobs we are training for today are not the jobs that will exist in the future. When I went to college there were no jobs in social media or cybersecurity! I believe that educators need to emphasize the broader goal of being a life-long learner. Cultural competence is critical for success in our global society.
T: What has your past experience given you that would help your work at Hostos as Associate Dean of Academics?
A: For years I worked for a scientific association, dealing with faculty who were co-editors of the journal. I helped move the journal from a print to electronic platform. I’m very comfortable in managing faculty collaborations, and that’s why I was tapped to be Associate Dean at Illinois and then at Thomas Edison. I missed the vibrancy of campus life, though, and wanted to be focused on undergraduate education.
T: We certainly have that here at Hostos. How do you want to support faculty in their teaching and research, especially junior, untenured faculty?
A: I want to help faculty understand that the tenure process is a marathon, not a sprint. We can work on creating a feasible plan and making time. And it is important to take deep breaths. Periodic check-ins are also important.
Publishing is not an easy task. I’ve been impressed with the work that CTL is doing: maybe there could be connections where reading/writing groups are formed across disciplines.
T: Yes, that’s a truly useful process. Jacqueline DiSanto and her cohort used to have a group of that sort. And CUNY has the fantastic Faculty Fellowship Publication Program, which affords those selected to workshop their writing with colleagues across CUNY.
A: And we could do more to publicize and support opportunities for grants. I would like to find more ways to incorporate undergraduate research into faculty research. I’m really interested in pedagogy of first-year teaching.
Once I went work in the private sector, I ended up having to give up my PhD research. I miss it but all the skills are being utilized here. I’m writing a grant with Madeline Ford to support more Open Education Resources courses, a new direction that would benefit both faculty and our student body.
T: Thank you! It’s been terrific to get to know you a little. Welcome to the Hostos family!