Andre Ngo

First-gen UCI undergrad Andre Ngo likes to joke that if he were an animal, he’d be happiest as a turtle so he could retreat into his shell.

“I’m really shy,” he says. “You’d most likely find me in one of the back rooms of Langson Library becoming a book gremlin.”

It’s hard to believe, however, that there’s an ounce of shyness in the energetic undergrad when you meet him one-on-one. His mentor, Long Bui, global and international studies associate professor, points to Ngo’s confidence and commitment to ethical inquiry for overcoming any hesitancy his shyness may bring.

“Andre not only stands out, he stands up! The budding scholar and future policymaker still has stage fright but is most confident in his supreme ability to face down his fear of public speaking,” Bui says.

Like fish to water

Ngo is currently double majoring in global and international studies and political science. His passion for these disciplines motivates him to seek people out to ask questions.

“He is outstanding in his willingness to engage anyone. He’s a true go-getter and great model for other students in terms of putting yourself out there with intellectual thoughtfulness,” says Bui.

Ngo first started taking political science classes at Cerritos College in Norwalk on a whim.

“Then I got hooked on political science. Not to toot my own horn, but I was pretty good at it too! It was like fish to water,” he says.

When Ngo arrived at UCI as a transfer student, he was elated when he discovered the Department of Global and International Studies. He was drawn to the discipline because it incorporated a broad spectrum of social science fields under one major.

“Global and international studies just clicked. I can be indecisive sometimes, so an interdisciplinary approach is very attuned to what works for me. I don’t like being tied down to a single academic pursuit,” he says.

Ngo admits that after a day of taking classes to fulfill general education requirements, a global and international studies course feels “like a breath of fresh air. This is my environment. These are my people,” he says.  

It’s possible

Ngo boosted his academic experience by participating in UCI’s hallmark Summer Academic Enrichment Program (SAEP) this year. Led by Bui, who is a first-generation scholar, SAEP is an intensive five-week program designed to give first-gen students formal academic research experience. Through the program, Ngo explored the relationship between a grassroots organization and Irvine’s local government over an asphalt plant, and the experience solidified his plan to pursue a Ph.D.

“He does not see global learning as something out there but a thing very much here in our lives and neighborhood communities,” says Bui. 

Ngo plans to broaden the scope of his study for his honors thesis by looking into similar relationships in London and Paris. He will study abroad in both London and Paris in the spring.

“I’m curious to see if there are global themes that extend to local areas around labor movements. The situation is getting spicy over there. I think this is going to lead to some juicy research,” he says.

You don’t know, what you don’t know

Despite Ngo’s zeal for learning, he says his transition from community college to UCI still came with a few bumps. Within his SAEP cohort of first-generation students, they talked about how “they didn’t know, what they didn’t know” about building a good academic career.

“Transfer and first-generation students are the most vulnerable to not knowing about the things you need to do outside of the classroom. The unwritten rules were much harder to understand,” he says, referring to things like securing a job post-graduation, presenting oneself professionally, and the benefits of attending office hours and forming relationships with professors.

Ngo hopes to spread his knowledge and help others navigate academia by mentoring high school students in the School of Social Sciences Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Healing Ambassadors (DIRHA) program. In this position, he hopes to broaden the perspective of the local high school students he mentors.

Like breathing

In general, Ngo says he’s motivated by a combination of self-improvement and curiosity.

“I have a fervent need to understand what’s happening around me and to feel in control. This need is met by furthering my education. Plus, I just enjoy it. I can’t imagine not learning about these things. It’s like breathing,” he says.

This isn’t to say that Ngo always has his head in a book. He’s proud of the work-life balance he’s been able to maintain by prioritizing his friendships and allowing time for things he enjoys, like playing video games, getting lost in a fantasy novel, or participating in a game of airsoft, a team game like paintball. 

After Ngo graduates this spring, he plans to continue his academic career by pursuing a Ph.D. in global and international studies. And the programs at UCI and UCSB are at the top of his list.

Options open

Ngo is the first to admit that he “lucked out” when he discovered political science and global and international studies early in his academic career, but still advises others “to try things until something clicks.”

“I know that’s vague. I wanted to strangle the person who told me this freshman year,” he says laughing. “But the nice thing about academia is that there’s so many subdisciplines. You’ll eventually find something that’ll fit.

If Ngo has another piece of advice, it’s not to pigeonhole yourself to a specific path. Instead, he advises his fellow Anteaters to keep their options open.

As far as his own path, he says, “I want to reach the highest point of academia, but becoming a professor is not necessarily my end goal.” He figures by the time he finishes a Ph.D., he might be interested in pursuing something outside of academia. Following his own advice, he says he wants to keep his options open.

There’s no such thing as a right path,” he says. 

-Jill Kato for UCI Social Sciences


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