Melody Nguyen

Year of Graduation: 
2016
Melody Nguyen

“You have to listen and learn as much as you can about the people you’re working with.”

A junior at Johns Hopkins University, Melody Nguyen ’16 has already put in a lifetime of service. She first felt the pull of helping others when she was in middle school, while volunteering at an orphanage in her hometown of Ho Chi Minh City. Her interest deepened at the Academy, where she became involved with the Exeter Student Service Organization. By her senior year, already attuned to the complexities of community service, Nguyen spent time as ESSO’s global coordinator urging club members to think through possible consequences of their well- intentioned plans to help: “You have to really listen and learn as much as you can about the people you’re working with.”

Nguyen remains devoted to non sibi at Hopkins — and she takes the same thoughtful approach today. “It’s important to keep [considering] whether an organization reflects your values and is having a positive impact,” she says. “Be guided by research, and try to find organizations that help more than hurt.”

Majoring in molecular and cellular biology with an eye toward public health, Nguyen looks to sociology classes to drive where and how she spends her volunteer time. As president of Project Prevention, a public health care project serving low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore, she helps organize health fairs to provide free medical screenings and checkups to uninsured residents. “We’re trying to close the gap between not having the money to access medicines and services but not being poor enough to have Medicaid,” she says. “But that’s only putting a Band-Aid on the situation, so we also bring in social workers to help people find insurance that will work for them.”

The university’s long-running Jail Tutorial Project, which provides educational opportunities to inmates within Baltimore’s prison system, is another effort dear to her heart. Nguyen works at a pretrial detention center with young people awaiting trial on adult charges. Most of her students have been raised in extreme poverty or come through the foster care system, she says, and many have histories of trauma, neglect or abuse. Without high school diplomas or employable skills, they face a bleak future after their release. Tutors like Nguyen help the mostly male, teenage population get ready for graduation exams or the GED and SAT, and the center provides access to additional educational and rehabilitative services. The Jail Tutorial Project also works with Goucher College Prison Partnership, the only program approved in Maryland to confer a bachelor’s degree within prisons.

Nguyen is struck by her students’ motivation to prepare for life outside the prison system — even if that day is far in the future. “They come from such a difficult place, and sometimes we don’t recognize that what they are experiencing is so different from what other kids are experiencing,” she says. “But they still want to get an education. They still want to improve their lives. A lot of them want to be doctors and lawyers; a few asked me to bring in a biology textbook because they’d never held one before. They’re not studying biology yet, but they read it for the sake of getting close to a dream job.”

Though hungry to learn, they may also find it difficult to accept help. When she first started at the center, Nguyen’s students often asked, “Do you get credit for this? Do you get paid?” She understands their reluctance to trust and knows that mentors often come and go, so Nguyen works hard to prove she’s sincere. “To [them], I’m just another Hopkins face,” she says. “It can be hard to get through. You have to find a way to show them, ‘She may not be here anymore, but I’m here. I got you now.’

“No matter how busy I am,” she adds, “I always show up.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.