Twenty-year-old Kansas native Tom Nguyen has made history by becoming the first Vietnamese American and the first person of Asian descent to serve as a city commissioner in Garden City since 1949.
Breaking barriers: Nguyen, elected to the position on Nov. 7, has since garnered recognition nationally and internationally, with calls from other Asian American city commissioners and media coverage in Vietnam.
“I’ve felt such an honor that people placed their trust in me to lead them and that has garnered a recognition that I would’ve never imagined,” Nguyen told The Journal. “My parents received phone calls from across the country, and from Vietnam, from people who shared the story. I think that’s when it really hit us: the magnitude of how historic the election was. We kind of broke a barrier for Asian Americans.”
Nguyen is a communications director at St. Mary’s Church in Garden City and ultimately wants to become a pediatrician in the area, according to Kansas Reflector
He decided to run for office after his Vietnamese immigrant parents gained U.S. citizenship in March. His goals as city commissioner include lowering the cost of living in the city and promoting the city as a regional hub.
“We do not know what to do in response to the generosity of a country that is adopting us,” Nguyen’s father, Tieng Nguyen, said through a translator, according to Kansas Reflector. “Partly to express our gratitude to it, we encourage our son to try to contribute what he can to the community and society. Our son has done it.”
Other elected Vietnamese Americans: Nguyen’s accomplishment is part of a broader trend, as two other Vietnamese Americans — Ngoc Vuong and Anh-Nguyet Nguyen — were elected to local school boards in Kansas on the same day.
Vuong, 23, elected to the USD 259 school board in Wichita, became the first Vietnamese American elected official in Sedgwick County. Anh-Nguyet, a 50-year-old Shawnee resident, was also elected to the DeSoto USD 232 board.
Inspiring Asian Americans: The newly elected officials stress the need for representation, particularly for Asian Americans, who may feel excluded from civic discussions due to language and cultural differences. They aim to address the isolation felt by immigrants and encourage more community engagement. They hope their success will inspire others to break societal barriers and encourage more Asian Americans to run for public office.
“When I got older, I just decided that I wasn’t going to be silenced,” Anh-Nguyet told The Journal. “Nobody is going to talk over me, under me, down to me or even up to me.”
“Our students need to be seen by our government,” Vuong added. “We have this mindset that perhaps there is so much to prove just because we’re the first. But we take comfort in knowing that we’re going to strive to make sure other Vietnamese Americans here in our state have the support they need to also run for office.”
There are reportedly over 118,000 Kansans belonging to the Asian American and Pacific Islander demographic. Among them, nearly 18,000 individuals identify as Vietnamese, making it the most spoken Asian language in Kansas with over 13,000 native speakers.