Som-Mai Nguyen graduated valedictorian from Eisenhower High School in 2013. She recently graduated from Stanford University’s Class of 2017 with a degree in symbolic systems.
Later this summer, Som-Mai heads to Berlin. She will work as a product manager at an edtech startup.
How did you decide to major in symbolic systems?
In my freshman year, I declared linguistics, but discovered I also loved programming. As a sophomore, I declared a double major in computer science and linguistics. At the time, I thought I would go into computational linguistics or natural language processing. However, I gradually realized I’d conflated coding with computer science.
At the beginning of my junior year, I found the symbolic systems program. It’s an interdisciplinary, Stanford-specific computational-oriented cognitive science major. It combines computer science, linguistics, philosophy and psychology. The major offered a natural language concentration within it. This worked out well. I didn’t lose my investment in linguistics (to be specific: in semantics).
I also minored in German Studies. I studied abroad in Berlin during my junior year. The following summer, I did an internship there. I will be moving there this August.
What are you most passionate about?
I grew up speaking a language other than English. It is because of this experience that I care deeply about linguistic accessibility, especially in education.
I also care a lot about empathetic, intentional art creation, consumption and critique. It is important that creators consider their audience’s experience and vice versa.
On a more abstract level, I’m passionate about rigorous standards, particularly in regards to humor. Laughter is precious. I try very hard to spend it generously, but well on good comedy that’s true, kind, and undeniable. Note that this is not about propriety or against bawdiness. It’s about the sanctity of humor. It is something magically human and inextricable from tragedy. I also have a strong reaction against a cheap, poorly constructed tragedy (a kind of drama).
While attending Aldine ISD, you earned recognition for your artwork. Are you still creative? Does art influence you today?
Everyone is naturally creative. It’s a matter of having the opportunity and inclination to create. I continue to draw, paint, and photograph in my spare time. In undergrad, I became deeply involved with a student theater group in a tech capacity. Though I didn’t do any theater in high school, I’ve done at least one production each term I was at Stanford. I led (executive director) the Stanford Shakespeare Company. And I got to act in my first show (Will Eno’s Gnit) at the end of my last quarter at Stanford!
What are some of your most memorable or life-changing experiences at Stanford? How have these experiences shaped you?
Studying German and going abroad to Berlin have definitely shaped my course. I’m moving there, after all. Becoming involved with student theater also made a difference in big and small ways. It changed how I approach leadership, teamwork, and all kinds of art. I’ve gotten more confident in defending creative and organizational choices.
You have taken part in Eisenhower HS’ annual Grads Give Back event. Why is it important for you to take part in this initiative?
I cherished every bit of thoughtful validation I got from a teacher, counselor, or alum. I hope to give even a fraction of what these individuals gave to me. It’s also critical to show students that out-of-state top-tier schools are accessible. Many of these schools are able to provide robust financial aid. In some cases, this may be even more than what outstanding state universities in Texas can offer.
I love talking to high school students about their goals. I love seeing whether there’s an even bigger, bolder version of those goals.
Who influenced or influences you the most?
I find so much resilience, humility, and generosity in my parents. Both are immigrants who grew up in poverty during a civil war. I’ve also always found it a great honor to be compared to my late grandfather who lived with us. He was headstrong and acerbic. But he was a heart-driven man that exemplified integrity in inconvenience. A few other people I admire for their wit and conscience include the McElroy brothers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Duong Van Mai Elliott, Constance Wu, Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ali Wong, Scaachi Koul, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Zadie Smith.
Looking back at your time in Aldine ISD, did educators inspire or motivate you?
My art teacher, Dr. Michaelann Kelley, has been one of the most influential people in my life. Other educators I must thank, though most no longer teach, are Eisenhower HS’ Ms. Mari Glamser, Ms. Sherry Roy, Mr. Thomas Wallace, and Ms. Crystal Arrington; Hoffman Middle’s Mr. Jean-Pierre Enguehard; and Harris Academy’s Ms. Williams and Ms. Holland. They stoked my love for language, rhetoric, and logical reasoning. They validated my ambitions and abilities. They also never censored my impulse to critically evaluate everything. Instead, they nurtured me into being a gentler, more patient, better person than I naturally was/am.
Are you the first in your family to earn a college degree? How do your parents feel about your success?
I’m enormously privileged in that my parents are college-educated. My mother was a first-generation college student. She received a medical degree in Vietnam. I am a first-generation American, which has brought different blessings and challenges. I hope my family is proud of me.
Did your parents support your decision to attend an out-of-state college? Do they support your desire to work in Europe?
My parents have always supported my ambitions. This has been the case even if they might at most hesitate at some details. For instance, they supported my moving out of the state for college. My parents are more free-range than people might think. It’s important that I can communicate a long-term justification for major decisions. In the end, the decision is always mine.
What will you be doing in Berlin? How do you feel about the adventures ahead of you?
I’ll work for an edtech startup as product manager. Right now, my plan is to return to the U.S. within a few years to attend grad school.
I’m psyched about working and living in Europe. I adore Germany, and Berlin was the kindest, most exciting home to me last year. Certainly, I’m very aware (and wary) of participating in its current gentrification. Yet, I’m optimistic that I will make responsible choices. I don’t wish to negatively affect communities.
My life outside of work, will involve two favorite passions: writing and making music. I’m looking forward to being creative in such a dynamic, historical centrum.
But I have not forgotten my roots. First and foremost, I am a Texan and Houstonian. I can’t wait to eventually return and work in the communities that raised me.
There is no doubt that you love language. What is it about language that appeals to you?
Language is wild. The fact that these muscles in your larynx and oral cavity move and make sound waves, which then somehow have the capacity to soothe and condemn and wed and lie and pardon and permit and convince and apologize? Absurd. Computational formalizations of meaning and communication aside, I’ve always stood in awe of what words can do. Much better writers than I have failed to adequately describe the divinity of seeing the poetry in a certain word or phrase, even simple ones, for the first time — “coup de foudre,” “dunkelhellila,” “don’t let anyone tell you different” — which is part of why I like studying new languages so much. You get to rediscover the beauty of idioms and metaphors that have long gone stale in your comfortable languages. I hate how saccharine I get about language, but the shapes words find in your mouth are the most wondrous things I have the luck to interact with on a daily basis.
You mention that English was not your first language. What was it like to learn the language? What advice do you have for current English language learners (ELLs)?
I didn’t learn English until I began school (Som-Mai’s educational experience began at de Santiago EC/PreK Center). To current ELLs: I send so much love. Multilingualism is so cool. Do your best to hold onto it (first language), but be kind to yourself if parts fade away. It can be a frustrating, isolating experience learning a new language. But your worth doesn’t depend on whether you can remember the correct preposition right away. Those details all come with experience, so get lots of it. “PBS Kids,” “Jeopardy!,” and Hardy Boys novels were my best friends. They helped me catch up with the volume of language exposure that Anglophone children had.
Looking back when you were a 15-year-old student, did you see yourself where you are now?
I saw myself graduating from college. I didn’t necessarily see the “from Stanford” or “deeply involved in student theater” or “moving to Berlin” parts of it.
What advice do you have for current Aldine ISD students looking toward their own future?
Be kind and fair, especially to yourself. This is much easier when you know you did the absolute best you could.
Click on the links below to read about some of our alumni.
What did you enjoy about your time at Aldine ISD, your college experience or career? Share with us! Send details of your experience to Leticia Fehling ([email protected]).
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