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UW graduate student awarded Fulbright for research in Indonesia

April 30, 2017
Thao Nguyen, wearing a scuba suit, floats in clear water while holding an anchor line
University of Wyoming graduate student Thao Nguyen scuba dives off the coast of Tioman Island, Malaysia, during a study-abroad in neighboring Singapore.

Thao Nguyen, MA in Political Science and Environment and Natural Resources

By Jeff Victor

Thao Nguyen found herself surrounded by beauty and deaf to everything but her own breath while submerged in the shallow waters off the coast of Tioman Island, Malaysia.

Nguyen, a graduate student studying political science and environment and natural resources, was studying abroad in Singapore when some friends there suggested scuba-diving in Malaysia.

“It’s just so nice, all that open space,” she said. “I guess that can be terrifying for a lot of people. They’re scared of the ocean, they don’t know what’s going to come up behind them and things like that. But I belong underwater.”

Nguyen compared the experience to yoga and meditation.

“The whole point of (yoga) is being aware of yourself in the moment, doing what you’re doing and relaxing,” she said. “That’s what being underwater is like.”

Recognizing her oceanic calling, Nguyen found a way to go back. She began work on a master’s thesis, for which she is looking into compliance and enforcement of marine protected areas in Indonesia. While nongovernmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the Nature Conservancy put into place regulations designed to protect coral reefs, Nguyen said these well-meaning and important regulations sometimes ignore the realities facing people in the area.

“When fishermen are imposed with these laws where they can’t fish in a certain area, you’re taking away not only their livelihoods,” she said “You’re taking away their food source.”

She said she wants to study this conflict between local needs and international (or Western) conservation efforts.

Arriving in the early fall, she will spend a year in Indonesia thanks to a Fulbright grant. The Fulbright Program offers competitively awarded grants to international exchange students and academics for study or research abroad.

“It is a crowning achievement of an academic career,” said Stephanie Anderson, associate professor of political science and Nguyen’s adviser.

The Fulbright grant and the environmental research Nguyen plans to conduct in Indonesia are the culmination of several years’ worth of work and dreaming.

Nguyen took an early interest in politics.

“In my history/social studies class, I was like, ‘Who decided that all these white guys were going to make all the rules that dictate my life?’” she said. “That’s literally what I was thinking in sixth grade.”

For a while, she considered going into law, but discovering the stress and high suicide rate in that profession, she shifted into political science. Once there, she began to focus on and specialize in environment and natural resource studies — the most fundamental level of political science.

“If you don’t have a place to live, good air to breath and water to drink, how are you going to do anything else?” she said.

In 2012, she did a study-abroad in Singapore. Some friends suggested scuba-diving lessons in nearby Malaysia. Those lessons changed her life.

“I was like, ‘Sweet, I’ll go,’” she said. “And I found out that scuba-diving is my life calling.”

Nguyen’s time in Singapore was formative, Anderson said.

“She was able to explore Southeast Asia,” Anderson said. “She became a scuba-diver. That really set her on a different path. It opened her eyes to a new part of the world. And she became very excited about it, very passionate about keeping the oceans clean and healthy.”

Returning to Wyoming, Nguyen began designing her thesis project, choosing her topic in large part because of her experiences in Singapore and Malaysia, her concern for protected marine areas and her love of scuba-diving.

“A lot of scuba-diving is going to be involved just to assess the coral reefs,” she said. “And I’m going to get to go to some of the best known diving sites in Indonesia, arguably in the world, because Indonesia is such a diversity hotspot that has prime location, temperature and shallow waters for coral reefs.”

In the summer, Nguyen started her thesis research, interviewing Indonesians about their experiences and needs. However, she had to rely on the help of research assistants for the vast majority of those interviews because she could not speak Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of Indonesia.

Nguyen said she knows only a few “survival” words, such as “bathroom,” “sorry” and “thank you.”

Now, thanks to a Critical Language Enhancement Award, also awarded by the Fulbright Program, Nguyen will have to rely less on assistants. The critical language award will provide for three months of intensive language lessons when Nguyen first arrives in Indonesia.

“It will be a good three months because it will help with me conducting my own research and actually getting a handle on what respondents are actually saying,” Nguyen said.

Speaking directly to the people is the whole point of Nguyen’s research.

“What I’m learning now, especially in political science, is when you want change, you don’t go through the government for change,” she said. “You go grassroots, you go to villages and see what they want to do... My thesis seeks to narrate the stories of Indonesians and how they feel about managing their areas.”

Nguyen said she hopes and expects her research will be comprehensive enough for a book.

“(Nguyen) is a person who takes criticism extremely well, who is extremely persistent, extremely dedicated,” Anderson said. “Persistence is an underrated character strength, and she’s got that in spades, as well as raw intelligence, great work ethic and mostly passion.”

Once her thesis is finished and her degree earned, Nguyen said she hopes to get away from the school setting for a while.

“I’m just so ready to get out of academia and theorizing and actually do some on-the-ground work,” she said.

But for now, Nguyen said she is itching to return to Southeast Asia.

“I’m ready to be underwater again,” she said.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2017, in the Laramie Boomerang.

Thao is starting a video blog of her adventures, available on YouTube. 

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