By Katrina Van Duzee/Garden Grove Journal
Vice president of the Boys & Girls Clubs in Garden Grove and assistant principal at La Quinta High School is where he is now, but Garden Grove resident Mark Nguyen’s journey to success began 32 years ago when he left Vietnam as a refugee.
Sponsored by an American church, Nguyen’s parents were given the opportunity to start a new life in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. With the American Dream fresh on their minds, they packed 3-year-old Nguyen, what little they had and headed towards Jamestown, North Dakota.
Upon arrival, Nguyen’s family quickly realized they were the first Vietnamese to ever live in the small town, but were greeted warmly by church members who took the family in, an act of generosity that sparked a philanthropic drive in Nguyen, he said.
“I could only be grateful for the opportunity I was given and I wasn’t going to mess up in any way to make it not worth it for me,” Nguyen said.
Eventually Nguyen and his family settled in Garden Grove where he attended school and discovered that he wanted to become a teacher. Nguyen got involved in the Boys & Girls Club during senior year first as a volunteer, then was hired as a program aide and eventually became the director of the Boys & Girls Club Family & Youth Outreach Program, all while attending school at Cal State University, Fullerton to become a school psychologist.
“We have known Mark for a long time,” Chief Professional Officer Pat Halberstadt, of the Boy’s & Girls Club in Garden Grove said. “He arranged his college schedule to be able to work with the children all through college.”
While Nguyen excelled in school, he saw his parents struggle with a language barrier, having to work several jobs and turmoil at home, which eventually led to them getting a divorce.
“I adapted well to American life because I was so young when I came over, but straddling two cultures was the most difficult thing for me. Dealing with the Vietnamese culture perspective from my parents and then going outside the community and trying to adapt and adjust was a personal challenge, Nguyen said.”
Nguyen’s parents were not initially supportive of his decision to be a school psychologist, he said.
They wanted him to be a lawyer or doctor and did not see merit in his decision until later in his career.
After receiving his master’s degree, Nguyen left the Boys & Girls Club in order to pursue a career with the Garden Grove Unified School District as a school psychologist. He also went back to school at the University of Southern California to get his doctorate in K-12 education leadership.
“Even as a young man his goal was to get an education and study whatever he needed to study to help the kids in our community,” Halberstadt said.
His continual drive to give back to Garden Grove led him back to the Boys & Girls Club where he has now been on the board of directors for four years.
“I realized I needed to go back to the Boys & Girls Club because they gave me the opportunity to build the connections and relationships in the school district and partnerships with the community,landing me a good job.”
Now Nguyen continues to work in the school district as an assistant principal at La Quinta, he serves as the vice president of the board of directors for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Garden Grove and is also on the board of directors for Project MotiVATe, which is an Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance program that mentors Vietnamese high school students.
He has also served as an associate board member for the Garden Grove Strawberry Festival in the past.
“His focus has always been on contributing to Garden Grove, he has never lost sight of that,” Halberstadt said. “Mark has an incredible level of dedication, commitment and enthusiasm about making things better for kids in our community.”