At Yale he dipped into the arts — and discovered he’s a poet at heart

At Yale, a community of humanists — including some notable mentors — helped John Nguyen embrace the writers’ life.
John Nguyen

John Nguyen (Photo by Daniel Havlat)

John Nguyen entered Yale with plans to become a neurosurgeon. Instead, he found his calling as a writer.

As a student at Harding Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, Nguyen had been laser-focused on STEM subjects. But after taking some English classes at Yale he discovered a new love for reading and writing. Despite his relatively meager exposure to literary studies previously, “there were so many professors that were supportive of me,” Nguyen said.

I’d never encountered such community in any other space.”

He decided to major in English and developed such a fondness for poetry that he started writing poems on his own.

I remember feeling really self-conscious because I hadn’t done much with the arts in high school,” he said. But he immersed himself in studying the genre and,  in 2022, was selected as one of six students to study with the Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück, a member of the Yale faculty, a year before her death in 2023.

She was the toughest instructor I had at Yale,” Nguyen said “Her vision of poetry was so rigorous. She wasn’t afraid to tell you that your poem was not doing justice to its content. I learned to separate myself from my work so that I can make the work as best as possible.”

Group shot of three frineds, one with a bouquet of flowers
John Nguyễn with two suite mates after a performance at the Yale ViSA (Vietnamese Students Association) cultural show.

Last year Nguyen, a member of Davenport College, was selected to represent Yale in the annual Connecticut Poetry Circuit, a statewide competition of college student poets. A panel of esteemed poets judges entrants from each school and selects four or five honorees, who then tour the state in the spring.

Nguyen, a first-generation college student from a Vietnamese American family, said many of his poems center  his mother, who works at a medical device factory and who was seriously ill with long COVID in his sophomore year at Yale. One of his poems touches upon the guilt he felt at being away studying at an elite university while his mother was home in Minnesota suffering with her illness.

He has also tried his hand at non-fiction writing, publishing pieces in the Yale Daily News and working as an editor at The New Journal, a student magazine. Nguyen said he was guided throughout by three other key mentors in the English Department, in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences: Sarah Stillman, a lecturer and staff writer for the New Yorker; Anne Fadiman, an essayist and reporter who is the Francis Writer in Residence and Professor in the Practice, Creative Writing; and Natalie Diaz, a poet and the Rosenkranz Writer-in-Residence Visiting Professor.

I’d say those three women and Louise have shaped me,” Nguyen said.

After graduation, he has a summer internship lined up as a feature writer at the Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest daily newspaper. Beyond that, he had nothing lined up– until last month, when he was recognized by the Frederick Mortimer Clapp Fellowship, the premier writing award bestowed upon one or two Yale seniors annually, and when he was selected as  a Fulbright Scholar. Now, come August, he’s heading to Can Tho, Vietnam, to teach English.

A family photo at a graduation
Nguyen with his family in Boston.

It feels surreal to me,” he said. “My parents haven’t been back to their homeland, and now I have the chance to step on the ground where they grew up.”

He eventually wants to write a memoir about his family’s displacement from Vietnam and their journeys to the U.S., connecting the past with the present. He’s conducted oral history interviews with his two sets of grandparents — one in Seattle and the other in the Twin Cities. Those interviews formed the basis for the beginning of that memoir, which he turned in as his 15,000-word senior thesis.

He figures another 80,000 words lie ahead. Realistically, he knows it could be years before he finishes the project.

Writing has shown me that you definitely can’t rush in,” Nguyen said. “The humanities and the arts have taught me to be patient. The sentences you need will arrive on their own.”

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