Dan Nguyen’s Clean Water Dream

He is focused on safe water, sanitation, and hygiene—keys to reducing infectious diseases worldwide 

Dan Nguyen, A24, knows the weight of water. Since high school, he has been raising awareness that a quarter of the global population lacks access to safe drinking water. In his first year at Tufts, he co-founded Tufts Thirst Project, a club that has raised $4,000 for freshwater wells in Eswatini and South Sudan. Nguyen’s concern for the global water crisis guided him into community health classes, where he realized clean water was only the beginning: 1.4 million people die annually of diseases related to a combined lack of sanitation facilities, hygiene education, and safe water. Water, sanitation, and hygiene—so linked that they go by the handy acronym WASH—have become the moving target of Nguyen’s advocacy and research.

What first inspired your interest in improving water, sanitation, and hygiene worldwide?

My parents have been a huge inspiration for me. I’m the son of two Vietnamese immigrants who escaped post-war Vietnam. Their health care quality was poor, their tap water needed to be boiled and treated, and their loved ones suffered from infectious diseases, like malaria and tuberculosis, that are associated with poor water and sanitation. I realized WASH is not a right that is distributed equitably to everybody.

You co-founded Tufts Thirst Project. What was the impetus, and what has been most fulfilling?

I was an intern for Thirst Project, the national organization, during my first year at Tufts. My mission was to spread the word about the global water crisis. I talked to a lot of high school students throughout the U.S. But then I thought, “Why not bring this to my own institution?”

I co-founded Tufts Thirst Project with one of my closest friends, Shanni Zhou [A24]. The most fulfilling part was seeing how fast people my age can mobilize to take action and initiative on such a pressing issue.

Has your mission evolved over time?

Entering the global health field, I’ve always been concerned about saviorism—particularly American saviorism—and voluntourism, which is the idea that people go into a community to volunteer, and only they benefit. How do we make work that is sustainable, long-lasting, and culturally appropriate for the communities we’re involved in?

Asking this question has brought our club mission to a shifting point. We were very focused on clean water, but water, sanitation, and hygiene are interconnected. Together, they’re so important in reducing infectious diseases. So, we shifted to partnering with another organization called Water for South Sudan, which focuses on all three of those components. We liked that someone who grew up in South Sudan, and understood the needs firsthand, founded this NGO.

How did you get started doing research?

Sophomore year, I took a class with Professor Daniele Lantagne called Public Health Engineering, which was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. I reached out to her and was like, “Would I be able to join your research group?”

It’s been history since then. I’m working on some really cool projects on the effectiveness of water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions in global health contexts. I co-authored this upcoming manuscript with an NGO called Catholic Relief Services on how NGOs integrate WASH and malnutrition interventions, because—through diseases like diarrhea—the two interventions are seemingly interconnected.

Where will this passion take you next?

I plan to pursue an MD/MPH in infectious disease, and I’ve actually been admitted to the Early Assurance Program at Tufts University School of Medicine. I want to integrate my interests in clinical care and global health advocacy, whether that’s in the NGO or intergovernmental sector. I want to combine both of those passions.

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