BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— You could forgive Minh Nguyen ’09 if the American Labor Day holiday
brings back some anxious memories.
For it was Labor Day 10 years ago when Nguyen found himself on a plane bound for Bloomington
and Illinois Wesleyan University, part of the mass evacuation of people displaced
from New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath brought the city to its knees.
A citizen of Vietnam, Nguyen had arrived at Tulane University for freshman orientation
on Sat., Aug. 27, just hours before Katrina made landfall. For Nguyen, his Tulane
experience lasted exactly half a day.
That Saturday, Tulane officials advised Nguyen and the rest of the incoming students
to leave their belongings in dorm rooms they’d been assigned and evacuate the campus.
Nguyen had spent his senior year of high school as an exchange student in Texas, so
he returned to Fort Worth with his host family. As New Orleans reeled from Katrina,
Tulane officials announced the university would close indefinitely. Pondering what
to do next, Nguyen sought counsel from his sister, who lived in Washington, D.C.
“Minh and his sister decided he should leave Tulane, as the future there seemed so
uncertain,” recalled Reenie Bradley, now-retired international student and scholar
advisor at IWU. As a high school senior, Nguyen had also been accepted to Illinois
Wesleyan. Nguyen and his sister were anxious that he not lose a semester of college,
so they asked if he could enroll late at IWU.
Illinois Wesleyan mobilized quickly to make that happen. Nguyen flew to Bloomington
with a laptop and the only suitcase he’d taken from Tulane, leaving the three remaining
bags in his Tulane dorm room as advised. His sister met him at IWU, helped him settle
in, and left shortly after. It was up to Bradley and the rest of the campus to help
Nguyen acclimate to classes, which had started the week prior.
“Because it was Labor Day weekend, the campus was pretty empty, except for the international
students,” said Bradley. “I summoned the other first-year men and asked them for help
to support a student coming from the hurricane.”
As first-year students helped with Nguyen’s immediate needs, IWU staffers made contributions
as well. Sports Information Director Stew Salowitz ’76 even lent Nguyen his vintage
L.L. Bean Big Ben timepiece after Nguyen mentioned he needed an alarm clock during
“I think the other first-year students were pleased to have the opportunity to help
someone else,” Bradley said. “Things were happening so quickly and we had so many
things to manage – from immigration matters to reimbursing Tulane for tuition – but
I wanted Minh to have a normal college experience. We tried not to keep calling him
‘the hurricane kid.’ ”
A strong student, Nguyen caught up in his classes in no time, Bradley said. He made
friends, and although he returned to New Orleans in November 2005 to claim the rest
of his suitcases, he decided to stay at IWU rather than transfer to Tulane when the
campus reopened in March 2006.
“The wonderful experiences, faculty and friends I had at IWU convinced me that I was
in the right place,” Nguyen said in an email. “The students and faculty all created
a friendly atmosphere.”
As she recalls those first days with Nguyen a decade ago, Bradley is amazed at how
well he handled the adjustment. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think his
year as a high school exchange student (in Texas) lessened the culture shock. In some
ways, he was better prepared when he got to IWU than the other first-years.”
Graduating a semester early with majors in both economics and business administration, Nguyen went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Those years in the United States meant many more opportunities to celebrate Labor
Day — perhaps relaxing with friends, or playing his beloved soccer, or just hanging
out — rather than hurling toward a future which once seemed so uncertain.
After receiving his master’s degree, Nguyen returned to Vietnam and today works as
an international cooperation official for the State Bank of Vietnam. He’s married
and stays in touch with a number of friends from IWU, including Tuhin Abner ’09, a
citizen of India who now lives and works in Tokyo.
“Minh really embodies what international education is supposed to be about – having
a good educational experience abroad and returning home to share your fresh, global
perspective,” said Bradley. “I am proud of him and happy he was able to build lasting