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Alumni Spotlight: Laura Nguyen

Our Alumni Spotlight for May 2021 is Laura Nguyen, a graduate of Morrow High School (2013), of Texas A&M University (2016) and of Georgia State University (2018). She is a Health Scientist at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) where she serves on the COVID-19 and Ebola Viral Diseases Response Task Force and currently works as an Emergency Response Capacity Specialist for Anglophone Africa. Laura believes that it’s instrumental to be culturally aware, informed and to build trust and healthy working relationships for one to succeed in life and that her participation in 21CL was a catalyst to all the opportunities she got after high school. 

Paint a brief picture of what you are doing now.

I serve as an Emergency Response Capacity Specialist for Anglophone Africa at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the COVID-19 and Ebola Viral Disease Response Task Force. I’m currently working in Liberia until the end of May 2021 to provide technical assistance to the Liberia CDC country office, the National Public Health Institute of Liberia, and the Ministry of Health. My role is to train and equip public health and clinical professionals with the knowledge and tools to deploy, respond, and control the spread of public health emergencies, specifically Ebola in Liberia, through the mobilization of rapid response teams.

How did participating in 21CL transform you and lead you to where you are now?

Participating in 21CL transformed me in the following ways: (1) understanding the importance of building a strong network and (2) being culturally cognizant that the views and thought processes of those around me are shaped and influenced by their cultural identity, experiences, and trauma. By far, 21CL has been the only summer program I have participated in that selected such a diverse pool of applicants. My cohort included peers who identified as Polish, Gambian (who was also my amazing roommate), Filipina, Chinese, Haitian, Indian, etc. In my current role with the CDC, I interact regularly with staff and team members from CDC country offices in Rwanda, Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Malawi, and Nigeria. It’s instrumental to be culturally aware, informed and to build trust and healthy working relationships for one to succeed.

How did 21CL prepare you for your next steps? Going into college and taking on leadership roles, heading into a new era of professionalism, etc. What skills/tools/perspectives have helped you along the way?

21CL was the critical point in my youth that served as a catalyst to all the opportunities that came after. In high school following 21CL, I was able to serve as a Georgia state officer for the student organization Future Business Leaders of America and receive the Posse Foundation Scholarship to attend Texas A&M University. In college, I interned with the UN Foundation in D.C. and afterwards returned home to the city that made me for graduate school. From there, the speed quickens to getting a degree in public health and getting a job at the CDC, but then leaving to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. After my service ended prematurely due to the global evacuation of all volunteers because of COVID-19, I returned to the unknown and a dire toilet paper shortage. I was once again offered the opportunity to return to the CDC but in a role with a team that most professionals can only dream of. All to say, my 21CL experience made a difference in my ability to think in a dynamic setting with diverse minds paralleling the confidence gained to take charge and act.

Which programs did you participate in, and when? What skills did you gain or improve through those programs?

I participated in the 21CL Summer Youth Leadership Institute (SYLI@Goizueta) in 2011 as an incoming junior in high school. The most memorable skill I gained during the program was learning how to effectively, healthily, and impactfully communicate in a group setting. There was a substantial amount of team building exercises and group activities built into the program and those opportunities allowed me to express ideas and thoughts in a safe space. My group’s mentor/RA (I don’t remember well the terms we used) was Nicole Meadows; she made my 21CL experience worthwhile and I am forever grateful. Her and the other mentors are the unsung heroes that deserve all the spotlight.

What was a memorable or ‘aha’ moment in 21CL? (Particular program, meeting a professional and diverse peers, speaking in public for the first time, etc.?

My ‘aha’ moment was towards the very end of the program during the last night before going home. Everyone gathered together for one last hangout, one last joke and laugh and that was the most memorable moment for me. We all started off as strangers but became friends at the end and that in itself—the ability of 21CL to gather the brightest minds in the state and for each person to forge friendships and bonds—is what makes this program so unique.

Did 21CL assist you in developing a leadership style that makes you an effective leader? if so how? And have you recently learned something else about leadership? Please share!

21CL was the first to introduce me to the idea that a leader should surround herself/himself/themself with individuals who do not share the same collective thought. A diverse set of minds and capabilities on a team stimulates more productivity, innovation, and discussion. The key to a promising future is the ability to cultivate strong leaders and celebrate their diverse backgrounds because they will be the ones to find solutions to complex social problems. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, says it best: “More diverse teams perform better and are more creative while less diverse teams think they’re better and don’t recognize their creative gaps.”