As a wave of relief overcame him, Kennedy Nguyen exited stage left to sit with his We Are Nebraska internship peers. By sharing his own story of combatting other people’s stereotypes and his own stigmas, his lifetime goal of creating positive change began.
Born female, Nguyen knew he was different from as early as age three. It wasn’t until much later that he found a word that fit how he felt and identified – transgender.
“Around the age of 12 when we got access to a computer and the internet, I learned more about who I am and that I'm not alone. That there are people out there just like me,” said Nguyen, a junior marketing major from Saigon, Vietnam.
Life threw what it could at Nguyen and stereotypes made it difficult. From personal family conflicts to being forced to leave senior prom due to his gender identification, he used those experiences as courage to share about the need for change and understanding.
“I was so angry that I told my friend that one day I'm going to bring this topic on a public stage. I planned to do a TED Talk, but I felt I lacked the public speaking experience needed,” he said.
Considering Stereotypes and Career Choices
Stereotypes continued to play a part in Nguyen’s college decision. Though he decided to go to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Business, his own stigmas almost stopped him from enrolling.
“At the time, I believed the negative stereotype from society about people like me – that we have no future – especially in business. The norm you see is the suit and tie, and a majority of business people are men, while women are more of the assistants or secretaries,” he shared. “I told myself I'm never going to be a business person or associate with anything related to business.”
His avoidance of business changed when his uncle suggested it and told him about ways he could excel. Then when it came time to choose a major in business, Nguyen chose an area where he saw a creative outlet for himself – marketing.
With that decided, he focused on his next hurdle, which was sales. His perception of those who sell was negative and he was not sure his introverted personality would fit the role.
“My early impressions of salespeople was that they are rude, talk a lot, try to sell you something you don’t need and were overall bad. I told myself, the last thing I would do is choose sales as a career. Then I took Chad Mardesen's sales class,” he said.
Mardesen, also an introvert, knew the negative perceptions about sales all too well and shared with Nguyen how sales was a more inclusive field than he first thought.
“Everyone is a salesperson. At some point in time, we've all been involved in the sales process. We all sell, and if we all sell, then logically every personality is suited to be a salesperson,” said Mardesen, an assistant professor of practice in marketing. “It’s taken me years to realize this, but I am extremely introverted. The thing with introverts is that it doesn't mean you can't have one-on-one conversations with people or you can't speak to a large audience of people or you can't be a successful in a group of people from a social standpoint. It simply means that's not where your energy is derived.”
Nguyen pursued the undergraduate certificate in sales excellence with the Center for Sales Excellence at the College of Business, so he could master sales, but needed experience. Then he came across the We Are Nebraska internship opportunity.
Connecting Sales, Inclusion, Improv and Performance
Using improv and theatre techniques, the We Are Nebraska internship challenged a select group of Nebraska students to tell their unique stories to grow awareness and empathy through emotional connection across the university campus and the Lincoln, Nebraska, community.
The first day of the internship brought many surprises for Nguyen. Believing he had accepted a more leadership-based internship, the mention of acting and performing took him by surprise.
“I was freaked out because honestly I’m an introvert and have never performed onstage or done any public speaking whatsoever. In that moment, I could have bailed out or I could stick with the group and see what would happen next. I decided to challenge myself and take some risks,” said Nguyen.
It was throughout the internship Nguyen discovered the skills he acquired could apply directly to his sales experience at the college.
“We learned not only about leadership but also elements in applying improv and theatrical performance. As a marketing student, some of these rules can be applied in sales, especially teamwork. The elements of improv – such as saying ‘yes and,’ supporting your team and listening – apply very well,” he explained.
The internship culminated in a series of performances where students told deeply personal stories onstage through various methods such as poetry readings, musical numbers and dance pieces. Nguyen knew his experience as a transgender person was a message that needed to be told to give more awareness to transgender discrimination.
“I know what it feels like to be the only queer kid in class. I was full of self-doubt all the time and went through depression. I was messy and hated myself so much. I asked myself, ‘Why am I different?’ I wished I could be normal. One day I came to love how different I was. I learned in order to be loved and accepted, we must accept and love ourselves,” said Nguyen.
Making His Internship Experience Matter
One of the locations of their performances was at Howard L. Hawks Hall. The atmosphere stirred the nerves of Nguyen, worried about how his peers and professors would react to his personal story, but he knew the message was an important one for them to hear.
“I was scared, but I looked at it as a chance for me to share my story and come out to staff and faculty here in the building. I'm grateful I'm able to share my story with a lot of people within our community to spread the word that it's okay to ask for help. It's okay to be vulnerable. It's okay to not be perfect. After it was done, there was a lot of people reached out to me, especially the college’s staff and faculty. Most of them I knew, all of them said congratulations and how they were proud of what I did,” proclaimed Nguyen, who said he felt like a weight was lifted off his shoulders.
One of those supporters was Dr. Kathy Farrell, James Jr. and Susan Stuart Endowed Dean of the College of Business. As someone who had seen the production twice, Farrell relished the inclusive impact of the show.
“The We Are Nebraska performance is quite impactful. For me, it reminded me that everyone has their own unique story to tell, and it is necessary to listen and pay close attention so we can all learn from other’s experiences,” Farrell said. “The College of Business is part of a broader community and it is important to welcome everyone into our college and the Nebraska Business community. We wanted to visibly show our support for this initiative since it is consistent with one of our guiding principles, ‘Be Inclusive’. In addition, we know that proximity can influence attendance and awareness, so by bringing the performance to Hawks Hall, it made it more visible to faculty, staff and students within the college.”
The support made stepping outside of his comfort zone to perform in front of the audience at Howard L. Hawks Hall that much easier. That willingness to explore one’s uncomfortableness is a trait Mardesen views as something that puts Nguyen ahead in life.
“Living outside of your comfort zone is sales. It's asking or answering uncomfortable questions. It's being put into situations I don't think we're born to want to be in. That uncomfortableness can be attached to anybody, whether they're cisgender or transgender, and so Kennedy may actually be more suited to be in that situation,” said Mardesen. “Kennedy is extremely engaged and involved, and a joy to have in class. He's also focused, and I think that purposefulness, that ability to kind of roll with it, is why he's going to do really well going forward.”
With his voice to create change now heard within the College of Business and university community, Nguyen plans to continue to speak up for transgender people in business and society in whole.
“I want to be that advocate for change, inclusivity and diversity. It's easy to sit down and enjoy something already created, but it's harder to create something out of nothing.”
To learn more about the Center for Sales Excellence, visit: https://business.unl.edu/sales.
To learn more about the We Are Nebraska internship, visit: https://wan.unl.edu/.