As a young teen living in Hanoi, Vietnam, Anh “Anna” Ngoc Tuong Nguyen knew what she wanted to do—go to America and work in the fashion industry.
Her willingness to climb out on a limb led her to South Dakota State University via Dallas, to the Fashion Institute of Technology and to a COVID-19 lockdown in New York City during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
As that city slowly creeps out of its lockdown, Nguyen remains in the Big Apple with plans of securing a summer internship before returning to Brookings for her final semester in the fall.
A fashion studies and retail merchandising major at SDSU, Nguyen was accepted into the Fashion Institute of Technology program through an agreement the state school has had with SDSU for about 50 years. Students spend a year in New York studying fashion and earning an associate degree from FIT while the credits also apply to their SDSU bachelor’s degree.
Among the instructors there is Julie Ivers Turpin, a Brookings native who attended the program in 1979-80, earned her State degree in 1980 and figured prominently in Nguyen’s pandemic story.
Pursuing a dream
Nguyen's trek to America began by sitting her parents down and saying, “This is what I want and I know you won’t regret it. I am ready and you have to let me go.”
“It always had been my dream to get my education in the United States,” Nguyen said in a May 16 phone interview. She identified a high school in Dallas and was accepted. The school helped her find a host family.
At age 16, she packed her bags. “I didn’t know anybody and it was my first time to fly across the globe.” She could have continued her studies in Dallas, corporate headquarters of Neiman Marcus, but she didn’t feel ready for there nor New York City. Despite having no experience with small cities or cold weather, Nguyen believed South Dakota State was the right fit for her, particularly with the Fashion Institute of Technology option.
“I wanted to take my time to develop myself in the safest environment. I also wanted to challenge myself with new experience.” she said.
That she did, according to Bonnie Junker, an SDSU instructor in fashion studies. "Anna is not the type of person who waits for success to be handed to her. She is the type that looks for opportunities to create it. She is goal-oriented, self-directed and motivated.”
During her time at SDSU, Nguyen was involved with many organizations on and off campus. She served with the International Relations Council and the SDSU Foundation as well as volunteering for the Habitat for Humanity Brookings fashion charity.
Finding a friend at FIT
In January 2019, she went through a simple application process and was accepted at FIT, which found her housing in the dorms at Fashion Institute of Technology. Classes started in September 2019 and during introductions that first day, Turpin learned that one of her students also was from SDSU. “It was an ah-ha moment,” she said.
That was the start of a friendship that included going out for coffee.
Nguyen also followed Turpin’s advice to get involved in the fashion community. In September and February, she volunteered at New York Fashion Week and Market Week. She helped put clothes on models and walked around with buyers, making connections with U.S. and international designers, Nguyen reported.
While New York City is always rather hectic, the pace became crazier when it was announced March 13, a Thursday, that classes were being suspended to give faculty a week to figure out how to deliver online classes.
“It all happened so fast,” Turpin said. “In the middle of class it was announced we’re suspending classes for a week to figure out how to do remote classes. Many students went home that weekend. Honestly, we were thinking two to four weeks and we would be back together. By the following Tuesday, we made the announcement that we’re not going to return to campus at all.
“Domestic students had to come back to the dorms to move stuff. Some students had gone home to California and Texas. Some students didn’t even get their stuff.”
Nguyen observed, “The trash can started filling up very fast.”
Initially, international students remained in the dorms, but then the message came they had to move out by Sunday.
Turpin said, “For international students, it was hard to get a plane flight home and it would be very difficult for them to get back because their visas would be all goofed up.” Nguyen said it wasn’t only FIT that was evacuating. “It was every campus in New York City. People were throwing away furniture.”
A show of generosity
As an international student, she travels light, but when the evacuation order came, Nguyen didn’t know where to evacuate to.
Turpin said, “I contacted Anna and asked what her plans were. She said she didn’t know what to do. I told her to stay at my apartment,” which is in Greenwich Village, a few blocks south of campus. Turpin, an adjunct faculty member, stays in the studio apartment a couple of days a week when teaching. Otherwise, she lives two hours north in Rhinebeck, New York, and that’s where she sheltered in place during the pandemic.
Nguyen said, “I was very lucky. I was trying to find a place to stay for the rest of the summer … Julie was helping me because I’m an SDSU student and she’s an SDSU alumnus; helping the next generation out.”
When some Fashion Institute of Technology students contracted COVID-19, “everybody got freaked out,” Nguyen said.
Neither she nor Turpin became ill.
COVID-19 cases follow students
Interestingly, Nguyen and a friend went home in January for Lunar New Year. Word was circulating in Vietnam about the problems in China. “Everybody wore masks on the flight back. When we got to New York, we said, ‘Yeah, we get out from the danger.’ We did not think it would reach the States. Then we heard about the virus in Washington state, then San Francisco, then New York City. Then we realized we got into a new danger zone.”
She noted the Asian community faced some harassment while in public, demeaning stares and comments about transmitting the virus.
“In the beginning, when I heard a few students in FIT got the disease, I was scared. Right now, I’m not terrified. People are still working in the grocery store. Things are calming down. The opening is pushed to the end of May. I still see a lot of people going out, but they’re wearing masks and practicing social distancing,” Nguyen said.
Turpin said, “Now that we’re on the other side of the mountain, it’s certainly encouraging to see we’ve done what we needed to and that was stay home. In New York City, there is so much to see, so much to do. You come to New York City to see all the fashion styles and art. To see that come to an abrupt stop, it was pretty shocking.
“People thought, ‘We can’t shut down for two weeks’ and now it’s been months.”
What summer looks like
Both Turpin and Nguyen were happy with how online classes wrapped up.
With the school year behind her, Turpin will be tending her garden and connecting with her parents, Pearl and Ken Ivers, of Brookings.
After the lockdown ends, Nguyen will move into the apartment of a fellow Fashion Institute of Technology student and hope to land a summer internship in fashion business management utilizing some of her contacts made during Market Week in February.
Then it back to Brookings, but not for long.
She foresees a career in fashion wholesaling, perhaps in New York City, where Turpin started her career as a buyer for Macy’s after her year at FIT.
Nguyen has Turpin’s confidence: “I know she was really good at maximizing her opportunities.