Spotlight: Ben Nguyen (NV '19)January 7, 2020
Ben Nguyen (NV ’19) wants his students to remember that success means learning to persevere through adversity and frustration: “Failure is a great teacher.” He joined Nevada’s Milken Educator family at Sunrise Mountain High School in Las Vegas on October 24, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: How did you end up in education?
Ben Nguyen (NV ’19): I fondly remember doing volunteer teaching, coaching and mentoring throughout my school years. I enjoyed tutoring friends on various topics and experimenting with many scientific ideas as a child (some that would get me in trouble nowadays!).
In college, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach at an orphanage in my ancestral hometown of Hue in Central Vietnam and in the Republic of the Marshall Islands through the Dartmouth Volunteer Teaching Program. Those experiences during the first two years of my undergraduate education shaped my understanding of the important role of teaching. We use education to share our knowledge, innovations and compassion with others, knowing that they will use what they learn to improve life for their loved ones and themselves.
MFF: What was your first year of teaching like?
Ben: Given my experiences teaching overseas and my love of tutoring and mentoring my loved ones and peers, beginning my journey as a formal physics teacher felt very natural. I remember spending hours preparing for experiments that went haywire due to a slight miscalculation or entropy. My students and I laughed over these moments. I tried to uphold a theme of enthusiasm and optimism throughout the school year as I helped my students gain mathematical and literacy skills they lacked. Luckily, I had many supportive teacher mentors both at my school and across Las Vegas. Help was a classroom or an email away!
MFF: You went from teaching physics to creating robotics and CTE programs that use physics in the real world. Why?
Ben: I have watched the skills-based training of our old vocational technology programs yield to the theoretical systems that dominate American education and billions of dollars of investment. This must change if we are to adapt our country, our youth and our soul to the needs of not only the 21st century, but the future of humanity.
By connecting our knowledge of the universe (like physics) to the real world, we can directly affect the world around us and shape the trajectory of our lives and our future. Technical education and applied knowledge deserve revisiting. I hope we continue to advance in this direction as we refine and evolve the ways we prepare our youth for the world that awaits them.
MFF: Outside of school, you work with Global Robot And Drone Deployment (GRADD), a Nevada technology company, developing domestic and international partnerships. How does that work dovetail with the robotics and CTE programs you’ve created?
Ben: When I was young and engrossed in science fiction, I predicted that we would have autonomous robot pets, trash cans, cars, appliances, etc., and that many of life’s functions and annoyances would be automated. It’s now 2020 and we’re not even close. I work with GRADD because if I want the future I envisioned, I have to help create it.
GRADD has opened many doors to exciting projects, industry conventions and interesting people working towards an emerging era of automation, robotics and a new humanity through applied technology. It’s exciting, difficult and motivating, all of which helps me continue to improve myself. My work with GRADD also helps me show my students the reality that our ever-changing world of innovation could easily leave our education system in the dust. This work tests my resolve to directly drive the change I want to see in the world. I hope I can inspire my students to ignite their passions in whatever in the world calls out to them.
MFF: What do you like about high school students?
Ben: I lucked out, getting a placement in high school. I believe that my temperament and youthfulness greatly enhance my ability to connect with my students. Students’ minds are constantly evolving throughout high school, and I enjoy seeing them grow as young thinkers and future stewards of the community we are all working together to improve.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Ben: At critical stages of my life, there were people who helped me through many internal questions and emotions, and ultimately gave me the confidence to act on my ideals, no matter how foolish or wise those decisions may have seemed at the time. I have vivid memories of my grade school teachers showing me how to experiment with the natural world by “mixing things up” with different experiments. I had long, deep discussions with college professors over the role of applied scholarship, something I still think about.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Ben: I thought I had no chance of receiving such a distinction so early in my career, and I knew there were so many deserving teachers at my own school that truly deserve the recognition. I remember looking around the bleachers for the teachers I thought would win—I was visualizing myself clapping with joy over the celebration of a remarkable educator in our community. I had no idea at that moment that the Award was for me! I did a triple take. A student in the crowd said, “Hey Mr. N., it’s you!”
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Ben: My students have been very inspired by the story and significance of the Milken Award. They are aware of the challenges of teaching in our neighborhood and in our city of Las Vegas, and they greatly appreciate the recognition for our school and the tremendous progress we have made in our first decade. We are constantly discussing plans for improving the school as we move forward, and I believe including their voices into the coming evolution of our school will be incredibly important to sustained progress in the education system of Nevada.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Ben: “Success” in education is a tough term to define as we measure it on so many different levels in our education system. I see success as growth in my students, both in their academic performance and also in their social and emotional learning as they understand more about learning and about themselves. When students participate and reflect on not only what they are learning, but also on the nature of their learning, I see them shine. I see it in their eyes, their behavior, and, of course, in their overall school performance.
MFF: What do you want students to remember from their time with you?
Ben: Whether I have a student for a week or many years, I hope my students carry with them the will to persevere through adversity. Failure is a great teacher, and we ought to teach this concept to our youth into their adulthood. Too many of our systems of social service demand compliance from our children, and I see that as restricting their freedom. It goes against the premise of my family’s journey to America, alongside countless generations of Americans, to seek a better life. I want them to remember that there will always be love, help and guidance to aid them when they are lost or in need. This is the role of not just our teachers, but of everyone in our society hoping to make things better.
Don’t miss any new articles and updates from Milken Educator Awards: