Tran Thao Nguyen – A changemaker in technology education and management

Recently back from the FIRST® Global Challenge in Singapore in October 2023, where they mentored the Vietnamese robotics team to the the FIRST® Global Winning Alliance Award and Social Media Award, Tran Thao Nguyen is flying off again, this time to Hanoi, where they kick-started FIRST® Tech Challenge’s Vietnam Championship as its Tournament Director. The FIRST® Tech Challenge is a robotics competition for students in grades 7–12. Founded by FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), it is an influential STEM program in the U.S. that has changed lives and inspired generations of engineers, educators, and innovators. With FIRST® Tech Challenge in Vietnam, Nguyen hopes to encourage STEM learning in technology education for local high schoolers. The program will also bring opportunities to Vietnamese students with international scholarship and exchange opportunities. And importantly, the most excellent team (decided by the Inspire Award for comprehensive excellence in robotics design, solidarity, and community impact) will represent Vietnam in the FIRST® Tech Challenge World Championship in the U.S. next April.

Finding the right fit with Fulbright University Vietnam’s liberal arts education model

Known all around campus and beyond as a rising star in Robotics and AI, it might come as a surprise to most that Nguyen majors in Social Studies, with concentration on Political Science and Political Economy at Fulbright. Nguyen also minors in Integrated Sciences, with interests in Neuroscience, Human Physiology and Immunology, and Environmental Sciences. 

For Nguyen, Fulbright was “the chance for me to get a world-class education without going abroad, and which is set in Vietnamese contexts so that I can gain more insights about my country, to contribute to its societyin the future.” 

Likened their capacity to that of a “Swiss army knife,” Nguyen adds: “I think the multidisciplinary academic background I gained at Fulbright combined with practical experience in fields like STEM education and climate finance has provided me with a robust foundation to engage in impactful work that addresses pressing global issues at their intersection, whether it be governance of emerging technologies, building more sustainable and resilient communities, or resolving complex political and social problems. I landed an internship at Earth Venture Capital, a climate-focused investment fund, without having a finance background thanks to my critical thinking skills, my research ability in multiple industries, and my experience in partnership building. I can be on the edge of innovation thanks to Fulbright’s interdisciplinary and practical academic approach.”

From Bac Lieu to a life around the world

Born and raised in the small province of Bac Lieu, Nguyen has now visited 7 countries outside of Vietnam (Mexico, UAE, Japan, Singapore, US, UK, and the Philippines) on tournament trips, for conferences and workshops events, all of these fully funded.

Some of the proudest moments in Nguyen’s life was when they,despite the high altitude, beat their own running record in Vietnam and conquered Ajusco (4,000m), the highest peak in Mexico City, and later, the Toluca Volcano (4,200m). “I made serious and consistent efforts on my fitness training because I was vegetarian and had low blood pressure, so being able to achieve those milestones immensely changed my mindset about self-tranformation and hard work.” – Nguyen proudly shared.

Toluca Volcano (4,200m high) in Mexico, 2023

Mexico was one of the more recent destinations for Nguyen when they won the Effective Altruism Mexico Fellowship 2022 and lived for 2 months in Mexico City for academic, professional, and cultural exchange and helped organize the first Effective Altruism global conference for the Latin America community. Previously, in 2018, Nguyen was a member of Team Vietnam in the FIRST® Global Challenge international competition held in the same city and achieved 12th place out of 161 teams, plus winning a Bronze medal in Engineering design.

Picture with the Vietnamese Ambassador to Mexico

In 2019, Nguyen was team captain and led Team Vietnam’s fundraising and communications strategies. Team Vietnam won the Mansa Musa Award for fundraising efforts at FIRST® Global Challenge at Dubai, UAE. 

The same year, Nguyen received a full scholarship to Manai Institute of Science and Technology’s 2019 Summer Program which took place from July 28th – August 3rd at Hokkaido University, Japan. 

Nguyen’s leadership at FIRST® Global Challenge 2023 in Singapore

This October of 2023, Nguyen was Mentor and Award Judge at the FIRST® Global Challenge in Singapore. Each FIRST® Global Challenge is a whole world united with teams from almost 200 countries. The atmosphere fostered at these competitions is one of collaboration and goodwill, where teams not only competed but worked together and played together without barriers. “It is the closest manifestation of world peace I have ever experienced,” Nguyen proclaimed.

As a Mentor at FIRST® Global Challenge in Singapore, Nguyen was the go-to point for team members when they needed help with subject matter expertise such as engineering, robotic constructions, business management, marketing, or fundraising. Mentors also served as positive examples and advisors, guiding the students to develop qualities like good sportsmanship, respect for the contributions of others, teamwork, and community involvement which are important core values in the FIRST® program. 

Nguyen as Mentor and Award Judge at FIRST® Global Challenge in Singapore 2023

As Award Judge, Nguyen scored competing teams on technical and non-technical categories, such as Engineering Design, and Innovation in Engineering, International Enthusiasm, International Unity. 

Her strong mentorship brought the Vietnam Team won the FIRST® Global Winning Alliance Award and the Social Media Award. “I got to give my team their Gold Medal on stage at the closing ceremony! Nothing can beat that feeling!” – Nguyen reminisced.

Creating impacts at home

Largely inspired by FIRST® Global Challenge, Nguyen organized Vietnam’s first Viet Nam STEAM Challenge in 2020. The competition aimed at cultivating a safe environment to unite talented young innovators of Viet Nam as they work on contemporary global issues. This first event welcomed 24 finalist teams with 200 contestants, 20 mentors and 100 accompanying teachers and audience members. 

Referee at Viet Nam STEAM Challenge in 2020

Viet Nam STEAM Challenge returned in 2021 (due to COVID) with 10 finalist teams in an online format. From 2022, the Viet Nam STEAM Challenge continues to organize community activities, STEAM teaching workshops, and competitions for students across the country from 2022 onwards. 

2022 also marked the creation of Viet Nam Robotics Challenge 2022 which is specifically geared towards the robotics competition model with the participation of 41 teams, 400 students, 50 mentors, 100 accompanying teachers and over 200 onsite audience. Contestants, mentors, and volunteers join the Viet Nam Robotics Challenge to connect with people with the same passion and drive for robotics and engineering.

This year, Nguyen is the Tournament Director of the first Vietnam Championship for FIRST® Tech Challenge, one of the oldest and largest competitions in the U.S. with a Kickoff Ceremony on November 7, 2023. The event will officially take place in the spring of 2024. 

Leveraging Fulbright’s liberal arts foundation for the future

As they nears the end of their college career at Fulbright, Nguyen reflects on their journey: “The thing I love about Fulbright is how intellectually curious, kind and socially-minded the community is. And I wholeheartedly treasure the academic freedom we are allowed to venture at Fulbright.” Nguyen then added: “Fulbright also provided me with a lot of opportunities. In my first year at Fulbright, I was lucky enough to be one of the first students to benefit from the Social Impact Fellowship Program and went to Hanoi for an internship at Fauna & Flora International. I lived together with other fellows at Hanoi-based NPOs/NGOs such as KOTO and Fargreen, in a tiny house in the alleys of Nghi Tàm Street. The Fulbright peers I met on that trip have remained some of my closest friends. And the spirit of social contribution has also stayed with me ever since.”

FIRST® Tech Challenge Kickoff Event in Vietnam

Nguyen is keeping their options open for their career in technology education, or any other promising fields after Fulbright. “I can be an entrepreneur, an impact investor, a community builder, researcher at a think tank, or maybe to a graduate program in Political Science or Technology Policy,” says Nguyen. “In the long term, I wish to contribute to creating a safe future with technology. I am passionate about technology’s potential to create a better future, but I also recognize the needs for responsible development given past issues like global inequality, nuclear weapons, and climate change. I want to work in this cause with a focus on lower- and middle- income countries as I think they are underrepresented and vulnerable groups in the global technology race.”

Thuc Nguyen 

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