$10k Scholarship Finalist
Ngoc Tram Nguyen
On March 16th, 1968, American soldiers killed 504 villagers in My Lai, a town tucked inside Quang Ngai province of central Vietnam, believing that they were Viet Cong, or communist spies from the north. Five-year old Huyen wandered around aimlessly until an unknown woman picked her up, hid her in a closet, and ran off. Huyen became one of the only survivors left of the My Lai massacre. Years later, she looked for the woman who saved her life that day. The woman did not survive.
Every year since the age of five, my mother, Huyen, takes me to My Lai and retells the story to me; no details different from the last.
Following the massacre, the U.S. Army attempted a cover up before the news broke out to the public a year later, consequently sparking international outrage. 26 soldiers were charged, but only Lieutenant Calley, a platoon leader, was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, the judges gave him a life sentence, but he served only three-and-a-half years under house arrest.
The very moment that my mother’s life was saved was the moment that gave birth to my entire being, identity, and purpose. I seek to bring healing to my people, to tell stories that would live on for generations to come, to bring to light injustices that were brushed aside.
Throughout college, I mentored refugee youths in Boston, culminating in my thesis on Boston’s Vietnamese community and the passage of knowledge through transnational and generational ties. I hosted letter-writing workshops for incarcerated women at a county jail, where I learned the struggles that often led to recidivism and the resources these women rely on to move on from their past. This pursuit led me to The Hague, where I worked with the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation to document contested history in public spaces. I realized that justice is nebulous and complicated. History is contested because memory exists. Every side brings their own justification and significance. In the same vein, legal decisions, as pronounced as they seem, should be contested. The law is often marked by the viewpoints of those in power, and while these decisions are generally accepted or legitimized, they don’t necessarily lead to healing, or justice and reconciliation.
My mother’s life, and ultimately mine, was renewed during a massacre, and I bear the work of achieving equity, dignity, and respect for not only those at My Lai but around the globe who are beaten down by countless war crimes. Embarking on my career as an attorney, I aim to expose the nuances surrounding these acts of state-run violence, while ensuring that stories of those impacted by human rights infringement live on. The One Lawyer Can Change the World Scholarship recognizes the belief that lawyers like myself, who are fueled by their purpose, will forge on to heal the world. The scholarship further provides financial relief for me, who will be taking on student loan debt to attain my educational accolades.
I often think of my – and all our – inability to control stories of origins. No matter how hard one tries, history does not wash away, even with water and a good scrub. My ingrained story of origin has tattooed my purpose from a young age. My legal and business education at Northwestern Law and Kellogg will allow me to elevate my impact, not only laying a foundation for me to deliver effective resources for marginalized communities but sharpening my passion for transforming the lives of those in need. I aim to expose human rights infringement, to protect those whose voices have been overpowered or disenfranchised, to make whole and celebrate lives that were brushed aside. My career goals are not just goals but an obligation to my people. Thus, equipped with further educational accolades, my goal is to work in the international arena to make the status quo malleable and to overwrite history that has negatively altered the spirit of justice and reconciliation.
Northwestern is known for its vibrant, supportive, and “low ego, high impact” community – all of the things that I yearn for in a school. I chose Northwestern because I believe in the institution’s purpose-driven, resource-packed, and network-oriented education. One visit to the Bluhm Legal Clinic drew me towards the gravity of unparalleled hands-on, real-world experiences that will allow me to serve my clients and improve their quality of life. Additionally, I applied as a JD-MBA candidate at Northwestern Law and Kellogg School of Management – the first major law and business schools to develop the three-year model and the program with the largest alumni network. Not only was the dual degree something that I appreciated and looked forward to taking on – as I believe that to work in an international community, I need to be fluent with my business acumen, but the cohort of peers and large group of alumni who could be my sources of light through my time as a Wildcat drew me to Northwestern.
I extend and embody deep gratitude to the unknown woman who sacrificed her life to save my mother in 1968; without her, I would not have purpose. To me and ba, even when generational and cultural bounds limited you from telling me you loved me verbally, I always knew you did through the morning bowls of pho, through the way you devoted prayers to me at church, through one-minute phone calls you make to remind me to eat; I hope you will always be proud of me. To my brothers and sisters, I learned to laugh and bicker with you, and I learned to be (more) patient because of you; you give me comfort and life. To my friends, thank you for being my sounding boards, for going out for comfort meals and taking spontaneous trips with me; you are my saving grace. To my partner, thank you for always being in my corner; sometimes, all I really need is to hear the words, “I believe in you,” and you do just that. Thank you to my family at TIAA who have supported my decision to go back to school, who brought familiarity to my new life in an often isolating city and bestowed knowledge and wisdom that I will forever carry with me. And thank you to my lifelong teachers, Jenny, Marie Louise, Ed, Brooks, Patty, Evan, Nicole, Nefyn, Maria, Anker, Tracy, Hanson, Oanh, Nam. Thank you for guiding me through this journey and for grounding me. You are my inspiration.
Since a young age, I have devoted my life to be of service to my community – to uplift confident, forward-thinking, and transformative individuals that will advance the world. Winning the “One Lawyer Can Change the World” scholarship will further propel that lifelong mission. This scholarship means more to me than just obtaining money; it also means that my people’s stories can continue to be amplified and that there are folks who believe in my ability to do so. This scholarship will be a further reminder that I was born with grief and gratitude in my bones and that I have a responsibility to upkeep the legacy of the builders who created joy from absolutely nothing. It further solidifies my obligation to continue paying it forward to those who have paved the path for me, including the organizers behind this scholarship, and be an attorney with a purpose, mission, and agenda that is oriented to making this world a better place.