Philanthropist Kimmy Duong and George Mason University student An Nguyen share a background and a belief. Both are Vietnamese Americans with a strong appreciation for the value of education.
For Duong, the story began in Vietnam, where she graduated from the University of Saigon and began her career as a computer analyst with IBM.
Everything changed on April 29, 1975, when Duong was forced to make the split-second decision to flee her country as communist forces took over the capital city.
Now, she was a refugee. Over the next 15 weeks, Duong’s journey took her from Guam to Wake Island to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. Speaking little English at the time, she felt only anxiety and concern. She eventually settled in Bethesda, Maryland, where thanks to her degree, she was able to return to work with IBM.
Duong met and married fellow Vietnamese immigrant Long Nguyen. The couple raised a family together and became successful entrepreneurs. Today she serves as chief financial officer for Pragmatics in Reston, Virginia, the company her husband founded.
After finding success in the states, Duong and Nguyen began to support an array of causes as a way to give back to their adopted country, from humanitarian relief to higher education. In 2009 they gave $5 million to support engineering students at Mason, which named the Long and Kimmy Nguyen Engineering Building in their honor.
In 2015 Duong established the Kimmy Duong Foundation, with the mission to provide educational and humanitarian support for Vietnamese and American communities. She credits her education for her new life in the United States, and that drive encourages her to give back.
“I wouldn’t be here without higher education,” said Duong. “You can’t deny that a lot of people get further in life because of it.”
This year the foundation awarded its first-ever scholarships to 12 students, four from Mason and eight from the University of Maryland. An Nguyen (no relation to Long), a student studying information technology at Mason, is among the recipients of the $2,000 scholarships.
Like Duong, An Nguyen’s father fled Vietnam at the end of the war. His mother arrived in the late 1980s.
“They had a really tough background because they had to acclimate to a new culture, new language. They came with pretty much empty hands,” said Nguyen. “If they didn’t do the work they did, I wouldn’t be here.”
His father studied electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, and his mother computer science at Mason. Newly equipped with college degrees, they started careers to support a family. Then tragedy struck: on September 11, 2001, Nguyen’s father was among those killed at the Pentagon.
“[My mother] was on her own raising me, and that just put a monumental challenge on her, ever since I was four and still now,” said Nguyen. “She has worked very hard, to try and work and get us the American dream – being wealthy, being happy, creating a legacy.”
Now, as his mother faces various health issues, Nguyen carries part of the burden to ensure she can one day relax, after all she has given him. The scholarship from the Kimmy Duong Foundation will allow him to accomplish even more.
“It’s pretty much an encapsulation of everything I’ve done thus far, in community service and heritage,” said Nguyen. “This is like a launching pad for me to excel even further.”
That’s the kind of impact that Duong hopes to have on students’ lives as her charitable foundation grows. The goal is to award 15 to 20 scholarships next year, and eventually pass the torch to her nieces and nephews as they take on greater roles in the organization.
“We all take from the same bucket,” said Duong. “So we have to be sure to fill it back up, and put in more than we took out. If everybody takes out, then there’d be nothing left to give.”
Christopher Bobo / August 23, 2018