Colin Nguyen: 2018 Outstanding Young Alumnus Award Recipient
by Kathy Jonas
Indiana University, ‘78
There’s the picture of Colin Nguyen (University of Washington, ‘05) as the very definition of the American Dream. Immigrating to the United States as Communism took over South Vietnam while just seven years old, he spent time in a camp in Thailand where he and other children took used syringes and made them into water guns.
He was the recipient of the College Success Foundation Scholarship, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. He went on to run one of the leading real estate companies in the Pacific North West. Along the way he conceived and organized an annual toy drive to benefit children spending the holidays in Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Then there’s the Colin Nguyen who entered a gang. The promising student who dropped out of college when his mother died. The successful college grad who lost his high-powered job and his fortune when the bottom dropped out of the economy while working for one of the largest mortgage companies in the country.
Both pictures represent the qualities espoused by Phi Kappa Theta: struggle through adversity, leadership, integrity, service to others, spiritual contemplation and reflection in times of loss and failure, the forgiving nature of brotherhood and the power of perseverance and courage.
“The greatest opportunity in life is the opportunity to experience the peaks and valleys that life has to offer,” said Nguyen as he received the Phi Kappa Theta Foundation Outstanding Young Alumnus Award at IMPACT18 in Orlando, Florida. The award is given to an alumnus under the age of 35 who exemplifies the ideals of Phi Kappa Theta through success and service to the community.
The journey Nguyen has traveled is as circuitous as his journey from Vietnam in 1990 and neither pictures of him accurately portray the man he has become. But a few things stand out: the love and respect of a parent, the fidelity of brotherhood and the resiliency of the human spirit.
In his speech given after receiving the award, Nguyen remembers his first Christmas in the United States when he and his family were at a food bank. They found themselves in line looking at used toys to take home. His mom suggested that a stuffed teddy bear might be a nice toy to select. “That night my mom taught me a profound lesson: that our attitude and perception will often determine our outcomes in life.”
While his early years were often plagued by bullying because of his inability to speak English, he said his mother refused to give up on him despite hanging out with the wrong crowd and even finding himself being held at gunpoint.
“There are moments in life, though, when we come to a crossroads and we need to look at ourselves in a mirror and decide what path to follow.”
That moment happened after coming home from a street fight one night and finding his mother crying at the kitchen table. She told him she had just found out she had terminal cancer and had only three years to live. Her dying wish was for him to attend college. “Little did I know that my life would change after that.”
He got a part-time job, studied hard to bring up his D average and ended up graduating with a 3.7 GPA. He got accepted at the University of Washington only to find out his family could not afford it. The Bill and Melinda Gates educational foundation had just started and he was the recipient of a scholarship.
Nguyen entered Phi Kappa Theta his sophomore year, only attending an event there because of the appeal of free pizza. He discovered some “amazing members” who inspired him to be focused and driven.
“Just as I was getting my life together, my worst fear occurred. During my sophomore year, my mom’s fight was coming to an end.” He pleaded with her to hang on until he graduated, hoping to make her dream come true. “As she passed away right in front of my eyes, I felt alone, abandoned and empty inside.”
He dropped out of college for a time, only returning after the support and love shown by his fraternity brothers. When they got up at the funeral and helped carry the casket to her burial site, he knew these people would remain a part of his life forever.
“We may come from different backgrounds and families, but this amazing brotherhood of Phi Kappa Theta unites us all together as brothers in life.”
“A few weeks later I decided to continue the journey to finish college in honor of my mom,” says Nguyen. “Don’t run away from the pain of your past, for pain will help you build character and lead you to a new beginning.”
He admits to being pretty smug when he got his first job and began acquiring a large house, a fancy car and was quickly anticipating a six figure salary. “I thought to myself ‘this is easy. I’ve figured out the key to success. I was an idiot to think that success could come so easy.”
He prayed to God for help, admitting he had lost his way. He didn’t go bankrupt, but learned some important lessons. “Believe me, I’m still making honest mistakes every day and learning from them,” he added.
He runs his real estate company and looks forward to time with his wife and daughter. The toy drive continues each Christmas in honor of his mother and all the children who cannot be home for the holidays. While serving thousands of children, his vision is to have a semi-truck filled with toys for the kids at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“Today I’m grateful to be living the life my mom always believed I was capable of achieving.”
Main Image: 2018 Outstanding Young Alumnus, Colin Nguyen (University of Washington, ‘05) (right), with Fraternity President Adrian Gonzalez (University of Texas at Austin, ‘78) (left).
Watch Brother Nguyen’s speech from IMPACT18 in Orlando, FL: