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Vy Nguyen – The School District of Philadelphia


Name: Vy Nguyen

The school: Philadelphia Girls’ High School

Nominated by: Megan McNamara and Joseph Marchetti – Teachers

Once in a while, you meet a person who humiliates you. Maybe not at first, but after talking to them, learning who they are and what they’ve been through, witnessing their behavior and their strength – and their own humility – you can’t help but be humiliated yourself. This month, that person was Vy (VEE) Nguyen.

It was clear from the start that Vy was special. With a smile visible through her mask, she kicked off the conversation with the finesse and confidence of a middle-aged executive. As her story unfolded, the reasons for polishing became clear.

Vy was born in Vietnam and moved with her parents to the United States when she was just three years old – her parents didn’t know English and didn’t know how to navigate life in the United States. “It’s never really been easier,” recalls Vy. “We struggled through everything and we got through it somehow. Personally, I’m proud of it… put me in any new environment and I’ll adapt! She adapted, because she had to. With the help of a cousin, but mostly watching American TV, Vy worked diligently to learn English on her own. The struggle was worth it – she was so determined and learned English so well that to this day she has never taken an ESOL course. And once she got over that hurdle, she started running over the rest.

By the time Vy arrived at Girls’ High, she had already beaten a lot of odds. But high school was a new challenge. Vy admitted that the first year yearned to start over – an intimidating new environment where she felt like an outsider. And again, like many times in her life, she struggled. But as you would expect from an adapter and a survivor, she quickly learned to thrive. She dove into academics first, assuming that if she could master that, the rest would be manageable. As she did when she learned English, she worked tirelessly, struggled and fought, and refused to give up until she had mastered it. She became such an excellent student that she was selected for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program – the most rigorous course of study offered by the Philadelphia School District, staffed by the most creative and committed students. “She’s a powerful student who is constantly looking for growth and learning,” praised Vy’s contestant and teacher, Ms. McNamara. “She is an analytical thinker, a dynamic writer and editor, a student and an insightful mentor. She is an exemplary student and an even more wonderful person.

Vy didn’t stop at academics. According to her, being a good student is not the end of the game, it is only a way to get there: to become an excellent person. “What I really like to do is get involved where I can to help people,” she explained. “I know what it’s like to struggle. When I moved here, I knew nothing and had nothing. We struggled every day. I think since I know what it is, it makes sense for me to help others not have to struggle so much. And so as a junior she started surviving girls high 101, a club dedicated to helping young students navigate the vast halls of Girls High. This has been especially helpful for younger students during the pandemic with the shift to virtual learning. The club is supported and sometimes visited by Girls High teachers, counselors, and administrators, who talk to students about everything from time management and study skills to class selection and SAT prep. Vy humbly states that she’s just doing it because she knows it would have been helpful to her and therefore wants others to have the opportunity she didn’t.

Vy is also a member of the executive board of the Girls High Service Club, dedicated to serving the needs of the community. She has planned and led several fundraisers, the most recent of which raised $2,000 for a family in need. During the holidays, the Service Club donated over 300 cans to Philabundance, donated dozens of toys to St. Christopher’s Children’s Hospital, and provided full holiday meals to seven families in the community. A collection of clothing and sanitary supplies is currently underway – collections will be donated to a local shelter for young women.

If all that wasn’t enough, in 2021 Vy became a Teen Vaxx Ambassador – partnering with the school district, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and students across the city to promote the COVID-19 vaccine to teenagers. “I wasn’t even vaccinated when they invited me, although I am now,” Vy said. “But I jumped at the chance because I felt it was important. The vaccine is a public good and the more people who get vaccinated, the better off we all are. Vy quickly rose through the ranks of Teen Vaxx and continues to be one of their spokespersons. She has participated in canvasses, held public lectures and recently had the opportunity to go to the White House and meet Dr. Anthony Fauci personally. According to Vy, it was “the experience of a lifetime”.

Vy plans to bring his experiences and skills to college next year. It could be Swarthmore where she once earned a full scholarship, or it could be the University of Pennsylvania, her dream school where she also participated in three mentorship programs. No matter where she ends up, she’ll study biology.

We had the privilege of chatting with Vy after she was chosen as Senior of the Month. Here’s more of what she had to say:

  1. What does it mean to you to be named Senior of the Month? I am surprised! I don’t feel like the things I do are that extraordinary. It’s the people around me who are amazing because they’re the ones I look up to and who support me. I hope my story can be a source of motivation and inspiration – if I have overcome and succeeded, then anyone can do it.
  2. You were nominated by Ms. McNamara and Mr. Marchetti. Explain your relationship to them? Ms. McNamara is the school’s IB coordinator and student advocate. She goes out of her way to listen to all students and help them through their issues (including mine). She’s a supporter, and since I want to be a supporter, who better to look up to? Mr. Marchetti is my mentor. We talk about everything and we got to know each other well. He knows my strengths and weaknesses and we bond around art. I believe leaders need mentors – they are both so much wiser than me. They have been through so much and I have a lot to learn from them.
  3. What’s one thing you’d like to share about yourself that most people don’t know about you? I am not a goodie-goodie or an overachiever. I also have very bad days. I still have little confidence in my English. So whenever I have to speak in public – or do anything in public – I get very nervous, use notes and practice A LOT. I want people to know this and understand that we all need love and support. I’m certainly not perfect, which means that nothing I’ve been able to accomplish is beyond anyone’s reach.
  4. What do you like the most when you’re not at school? Art! I struggled with words for a long time, so art became the medium through which I best express myself. I use it to share my emotions and thoughts when I can’t articulate them. I am also a member of a Vietnamese Eucharistic movement whose goal is to help guide young people in the right direction in life. We do community service, play games and socialize, but it’s mostly about talking about life together.
  5. What is one thing the school district could do to improve our service to students? I would like to see more accessible platforms for students to contribute to the district. It would be nice to reduce the distance between the students and the district management.

“Vy doesn’t do anything for recognition or a pat on the back,” Mr. Marchetti said. “She does it for her community and her love of others.” Ms McNamara added: ‘She’s a Renaissance woman, but she’s so modest you’d have to see it to believe it.’ Never change Vy, keep humiliating people everywhere you go!