Behind the counter with Thuy Nguyen

By Dora Totoian | March 21, 2018 4:56pm

Commons worker Thuy Nguyen has been working for Bon App for 6 years.

Media Credit: Cheyenne Perry / The Beacon

As you walk into the Commons during the lunch-hour rush and weave your way through the crowd to review the food options, you will likely hear an enthusiastic “Hi, honey! How are you?” from the bowls station. The voice is from Thuy Nguyen, who is always ready to greet students with a smile.

Nguyen has worked at the University of Portland for six years. She immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1994 and worked a variety of jobs in Louisiana and Portland before coming to UP. In her home country, she was a high school teacher. She fondly remembers her college years and enjoys working at UP because it reminds her of that time — but with one difference: She did not have as much variety to choose from and as much to eat in her college dining hall. 

“Students and people in the university (were) very hungry,” Nguyen said. “We eat just one bowl a day. We say, ‘Can we have more?’ and she [cafeteria worker] says, ‘No, that’s it!’ That’s why the students here (are) lucky.” 

Like UP, her university in Vietnam was affiliated with the Catholic Church. It was run by nuns, who were strict and would rarely smile or laugh. Students would try to avoid them, even waiting to go in a different elevator so that they wouldn’t have to see them. Nguyen recalled that the school gates closed at 8:00 p.m., which frustrated students — even though it didn’t keep them from breaking the rules and staying out late. 

“The old man who keeps the gate, he stays over there all day and night, and he says, ‘No, the nuns told us to lock the gate’” Nguyen said. “We go out to hear the concerts...and we have to collect money to go to the store and buy candy and give to him and say, ‘Oh, can you open the door, and don’t tell the nuns, please?’ And then he opens the door.” 

When she graduated college in 1983, Nguyen worked as a high school teacher for the next five years. Teachers were paid poorly in the Vietnam of her era. She had to borrow money from her mother to support her family. Because of her small salary, she quit her job as a teacher and found a better-paying one delivering groceries. Even with a different job, she decided to leave Vietnam in 1994. 

Nguyen moved to Louisiana, where she wanted to work as an elementary school teacher, but decided that she was too old to complete the education required for it. In the meantime, she began to work as a nail technician and moved to Portland in 2000. While she said that doing nails was a fun job, it didn’t provide her benefits and the hours were too long. She earned her food handler certification and came to UP in 2012. 

When she’s not at UP, she enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, going to the gym and watching movies — but not new movies. She explained that she prefers old movies because they’re better at helping viewers feel profound emotions. 

Nguyen prefers working at UP instead of restaurants because the staff and the customers make for a more comfortable environment. She enjoys being around the students because they’re friendly and make UP a great place to work. 

“(I plan to work here) maybe the rest of my life. I love it here,” Nguyen said.