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Titan Voices: APIDA superhero alumni aid, uplift the community

We at Cal State Fullerton are honoring Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month through a variety of events, including our Titan Table Talks, an ongoing virtual series that revolves around cultural heritage months through the lens of civic engagement. Last week, our “Titan Table Talk: Civic Engagement in APIDA Communities,” was moderated by Natalie Tran, department chair in our College of Education, and featured an insightful panel discussion with APIDA community leaders and Titan alumni.

As president, I have the honor of providing opening remarks at each of these Titan Table Talks, and given the alarming rise of anti-Asian hate (and Cal State Fullerton’s role in standing up against it), I feel it is important to further share portions of that message with my broader community here.

There are countless Titans who I think of as heroes, and all of them — faculty, staff, students, and alumni — are, exactly that: Heroic in how they continually lift up others through education, inclusion, equity, and civic engagement. As impressive as these folks are, every now and then I meet a Titan who exceeds even the most heroic among us. Titan superheroes, if you will, who consistently wield the power of their unique gifts not for personal gain, but for the greater good.

To me, there has been no better example of this during this pandemic than Titan alum, Tam Nguyen, especially through the lens of the civic engagement theme our Titan Table Talks are anchored by. Indeed, since Tam earned his MBA at Cal State Fullerton in 2005, he has personified civic engagement — from serving as president of the CSUF Alumni Association and founding president of the Vietnamese American MBA Alumni Chapter to visiting professor in our School of Business and as the next board chair of the Orange County United Way.

Separated from his father, a South Vietnamese Naval Commander, during the Vietnam War, Tam reunited with his family in the United States and went on to create Advance Beauty College with his sister and two-time Titan alum, Linh – a superhero in her own right. But like so many other Asian families who come to this country seeking a new life, Tam’s parents did not risk everything to merely transform their own lives and family legacies; they also sought to transform their new home. For Tam and his family, that meant ensuring the graduates of their college (which has provided tens of thousands of Orange County residents the skills and certifications needed to succeed as manicurists, estheticians, cosmetologists, barbers, and business owners) are vested in the communities they serve through civic engagement.

So, when the pandemic first hit, and front-line health care workers around the country were risking their own lives to treat patients due to a scarcity of personal protective equipment, it was no surprise to me to see who stood up first and tallest. Titan superhero, Tam Nguyen. Together with Linh and co-founders Christine Nguyen, Ha Duong, Johnny Ngo, and Ted Nguyen, Tam created Nailing It For America, an organization that purchased, collected, and delivered more than $30 million dollars-worth of PPE and over 70,000 meals for frontline healthcare workers.

In other words, as the pandemic shut down Tam’s businesses and caused untold financial losses, he and his family sought not to save themselves, but to save others.

As word of their benevolent work spread, I looked forward to seeing their fellow Americans hold them up as the superheroes that they are. That gratitude has come from within our Titan family, but too often, the opposite has been true elsewhere in our nation. This is not new to American history, throughout which Asians and Asian Americans have valiantly served and supported our nation while concurrently being scapegoated, hated, discriminated against, and attacked.

Case in point, a few weeks ago, as Tam continued to lead one of the most impactful life-saving measures for our frontline workers in the nation, he and his colleagues received an anonymous letter. The letter was not to thank them for their incredible benevolence and service, but to call them unspeakable racist epithets and demand that they “go back where they came from.”

A few weeks ago, at a Stop Asian Hate rally in Koreatown, Tam read that vile letter on camera several times — from CNN to the local news — so that no one could deny the hatred our APIDA communities are facing. My wife, Julie, and I were standing with him, and as strong as I like to think I am, I am no Tam Nguyen. I am no superhero. Every time he read those vile words that day, I silently wept behind my sunglasses and mask, my shoulders trembling and my heart breaking.

But as I watched Koreatown fill up with APIDA superheroes like Tam — speaking out, marching peacefully, reading letters, demanding change — my broken heart began to mend. For in each of those APIDA communities and their allies, I saw our Titan family. I saw them literally, to be sure, with countless Titans marching with us, but also figuratively with so many sharing our Titan mission to stop all hate, eradicate systemic racism, and uphold social justice through peace, love, and inclusion.

Superheroes indeed.

Framroze Virjee formerly served as the executive vice chancellor and general counsel of the California State University, as well as secretary to the CSU Board of Trustees. In 2019, he became the university’s sixth president, taking the permanent seat after a 14-month interim role. He and his wife, Julie, run Yambi Rwanda, a nonprofit organization in Rwanda that seeks to help overcome poverty and the trauma of genocide through education and opportunity.

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