From Vietnam to Boston’s Beacon Hill

Tram Nguyen and her family arrived in this country with just $100. Now the first Vietnamese American woman elected to the Massachusetts legislature wants to help others achieve their American dreams

While all eyes might be on the country’s divisive national politics, local government affects our towns and cities from top to bottom. And local politicians like Tram Nguyen, A08, want us to know: They’re working to ensure that the many paths to success that America is built on are accessible to all.

$100 and a Promise

Like many parents, Nguyen’s mother and father chose to move to Massachusetts for its renowned school system. Unlike many parents, they were refugees from halfway around the world.

It was January 1992 when they arrived in the U.S., and Nguyen was just 5 years old, the big sister of three. Her father had served in the South Vietnamese military alongside American soldiers during the Vietnam War, in which millions of Vietnamese civilians and fighters on both sides died. Nguyen’s father “fought for democracy and freedom,” she says, and was subsequently a prisoner of war in a reeducation camp for eight years.

He and his wife were blacklisted because of his bravery, with little opportunity for income. But thanks to the Orderly Departure Program, which permitted Vietnamese people to leave their homeland safely and immigrate to the U.S. and other countries, they were able to get a fresh start.

“I understand the struggles of working families because I’ve seen firsthand what it took for my parents to provide for us.”

State Representative Tram Nguyen, A08

The Nguyens (who pronounce their last name “Win”) settled in the Merrimack Valley, arriving with $100 and a promise: No matter how difficult, they would succeed. “I understand the struggles of working families because I’ve seen firsthand what it took for my parents to provide for us,” Nguyen says.

Each worked two to three jobs at a time, often with little job security or protection, while taking English classes. Friends would babysit the children, and a fellow Vietnamese neighbor would drive them to and from school in exchange for gas money. That “invaluable support” helped the family purchase their home in Methuen—where Nguyen’s parents still live today.

“I came to this country not knowing a word of English,” she says, “and with the help and support of all my teachers, I excelled.”

MD Adjourned

Nguyen graduated from Methuen High at the top of her class and was the first in her family to attend college. Like a lot of Jumbos, she arrived at Tufts aspiring to become a doctor (pediatrician, to be exact) and threw herself into related extracurriculars. A love of children led her to the Jumpstart program, where she helped local kids learn to read, and a surprising, new passion was ignited. She realized she wanted to make change for families through policy, not medicine, and took a paralegal role at a firm in California.

But that big “law firm life was not for me,” Nguyen says, and she found work back home with the Census Bureau. As a partnership specialist with the Vietnamese community, she “learned more about the issues and barriers in the community” and was inspired to get her JD.

In 2013, fresh from Northeastern University, Nguyen headed to Greater Boston Legal Services, where she represented domestic violence survivors, workers, seniors, veterans, and children, and worked with state lawmakers to push for bills that protect the rights of the most vulnerable communities and address racial and economic disparities. She saw the impact of good policy, advocating for legislation at the State House.

It was there that Nguyen hit a dead end that would lead to a new career.

You Say You Want a Revolution

Three things to know when talking to Representative Tram T. Nguyen: Tram rhymes with “mom.” She is the state representative for the 18th Essex District of Massachusetts, which includes parts of Andover, Boxford, North Andover, and Tewksbury. And she is the first Vietnamese American woman elected to office in the Commonwealth.

One more thing: She unseated an eight-year incumbent in her first race.

In 2016, Nguyen didn’t even know the name James "Jim" Lyons Jr.—let alone that he was her state representative. All she knew was that politics was growing divisive after the presidential election, the very communities she served—immigrants and minorities, in particular—were becoming more at risk of hate crimes, and the policies that protected their rights were under threat.

Nguyen wondered: Who is my representative? She started closely inspecting the bills Lyons supported, including one that “would have allowed police officers to stop anyone who looks illegal,” she says, “essentially trying to legalize racial profiling.” The bill struck a core nerve.

She tried to talk to Lyons by phone, email, and even office visits for almost two years, but says she never received an answer.

Colleagues, family, and her boyfriend (now husband) encouraged Nguyen to run for the seat. “It was a big bet,” she admits, but, in 2018, she took seven months off to campaign door-to-door full-time, running on a platform of “positive community building.”

She won—by more than 2,000 votes, with a 55% majority.

Representative Win

Now in her third term, Nguyen is committed to amplifying the voices of her district’s residents. She doesn’t want anyone to feel ignored, like she did.

“Who are the people being left out of the conversation? Who doesn’t know how to access information? What languages do we need to include?” she asks. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are the throughline in all of her work, and she serves on several committees on everything from mental health and recovery to steering and policy.

In the spirit of her father, who fought for democracy, Nguyen says she is “making sure people understand that government can work for them, that we are here to work for them.”

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