Viet Nguyen, Adriel Barrios-Anderson to speak at Commencement

Nguyen to reflect on deserving, entitlement, Barrios-Anderson on silence

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Adriel Barrios-Anderson and Viet Nguyen, the 2017 student orators, walk across the main green.

Adriel Barrios-Anderson and Viet Nguyen, the 2017 student orators, walk across the main green.

This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2017

Adriel Barrios-Anderson ’17 and Viet Nguyen ’17 will deliver speeches at the University’s 249th Commencement ceremony May 28. The two were selected by a committee of staff and faculty members as well as fellow students. This weekend they will take their place in a Brunonian tradition that elevates the voices of two student speakers instead of leveraging Brown’s prestige to solicit oratory from politicians, entrepreneurs and celebrities.

In conversation, both Barrios-Anderson and Nguyen are gentle and measured speakers. They reflect on their experiences with poise and humility, a trait they identified in separate interviews as a distinctive feature of Brown students, whom they praise as high achievers driven more by passion than prestige.

Barrios-Anderson grew up in Houston, Texas. The son of Panamanian immigrants, he attended a Montessori school and has wanted to be a scientist since the age of four. He studied neuroscience as well as science and society as an undergraduate and will start his four years at Brown’s Alpert Medical School in the fall, having been admitted four years ago to the Program in Liberal Medical Education.

“I love the program,” Barrios-Anderson said of PLME, which offers a select number of prospective undergraduates admission into both the College and the Med School when they apply as high school students. “It’s been a fantastic opportunity to prepare for med school while exploring other interests.”

For Barrios-Anderson, those other interests have centered on the way medical science functions in the world. In addition to standard pre-medical courses and neuroscience requirements, Barrios-Anderson said his concentration in science and society “opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about science.” Courses and activities focused not just on chemical or biological processes but also on the social element of medicine have instilled in him appreciation for the fact that “medical care can be very messy and very emotional.”

Nguyen hails from Mountain View, California. His parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1993, and he was born in San Jose two years later. He attended a “medium-sized” high school where he fondly remembers “teachers (taking) extra time to make sure (he) was caught up and was ready for the curriculum at Brown.”

Nguyen considered concentrations as disparate as public health, computer science and physics before settling on education as a course of study. He was taking a neuroscience class on learning and memory when he realized his burning question was: “How do we make people better learners?” Rather than concentrating on the biological process of learning, he wanted to tackle the issue by “looking at it from systemic levels.”

When asked about his transition to Brown, Nguyen laughed and smiled. “It was a lot of adjusting in terms of the social climate and the financial aspect of it,” he said. He was struck by the cost of moving and all the logistics that came with it. For the first two months, his “dorm room was basically empty. I just had a pillow and some soap.” Like many other classmates from the West Coast, Nguyen was also arriving at a new residence 3,000 miles from home having never been away from home for much longer than a week.

Nguyen would go on to blend his coursework with an intense commitment to extracurricular activities on campus, serving as president of the Undergraduate Council of Students in his senior year and founding 1vyG, an organization at a number of institutions of higher education that advocates the interests of first-generation college students. Nguyen’s work as an advocate for first-generation college students would, along with buy-in from the University and the advocacy of other students on campus, lead to the founding of the University’s First-Generation and Low-Income Student Center. His efforts to advance social change at Brown have shaped his education and his career plans.

“I see my role as UCS president as an extension of my studies,” Nguyen said, noting that he is interested in “looking at higher education as a system, and how do we change it, not just from a theoretical standpoint but also from an activist standpoint.” After graduation, Nguyen will head to South Korea to teach on a Fulbright scholarship. Following his stint in South Korea he will return to the New England area to work for the nonprofit consulting firm Bridgespan in Boston.

On campus, Barrios-Anderson served as a coordinator for the New Scientist Collective, a group that provides guidance through peer mentorship for underrepresented minorities navigating coursework in science, technology, mathematics and engineering. Barrios-Anderson has found professors in the neuroscience department very encouraging, but he knows that positive experiences in the classroom and with faculty members are “not the reality for everyone.” As a mentor, he tries “to support students in finding the professors and connections and avenues that will make their experiences in STEM more welcoming.”

Barrios-Anderson is also a musician who plays in a group called the 5Y Quintet. His memories with the group “are probably the moments I will most cherish about my Brown experience,” he said.

In fact, it was a remark made to Barrios-Anderson by a professor of music that became the conceptual engine for the speech he will give at Commencement. Tentatively titled “Silent Lessons,” the speech harkens back to a moment his freshman year when a professor explained that music’s enchantment owes itself in part to “silences that are being manipulated by composers.”

“I felt at Brown I learned a lot by attending to this idea of silence,” Barrios-Anderson said. In his speech, he aims “to attend to things that we normally don’t attend to because we think there’s not much there.”

In Nguyen’s speech, tentatively titled, “The Idea of Deserving,” he will focus on the challenge of “reconciling different identities … while also being in a very elite institution.” He will reflect on how the idea of deserving differs from that of entitlement and how four years at Brown shaped his evolving understanding of these categories.

Drawing on four years at Brown, Nguyen said he would tell future students, “You’ll have the best moments of your life, and you’ll have some not-so-great moments.” The key is “looking at those things as a collective experience” and considering “how they’ll shape you into the person you want to become.”

Thinking about future Brown students, Barrios-Anderson emphasized the importance of “being receptive to how you’re experiencing Brown and how your peers and friends are … because that’s how you create and foster a more supportive community.”

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