Hang Nguyen ’21, ’25 M.D. on Her Art and Public Service Journey

For its 2021 Year in Review, Dwight Hall commissioned Hang Nguyen ’21, ’25 M.D. to paint an oil portrait of Dwight Chapel, an image which adorns the Year in Review’s back cover. Dwight Hall’s student writer Noel Sims ’24 sat down with Hang to discuss her service trajectory from high school to the present and to hear more about the process behind Hang’s art. Hang has been a dedicated advocate for New Haven community members and other first-generation low-income students at Yale. She continues this work as a medical student and with Dwight Hall’s communications team, where Hang helps make Dwight Hall and its programming and opportunities more accessible to the Yale community. 

NS: To start, I’m wondering if you could tell me about when activism and advocacy first became important to you?

HN: I moved to the U.S. from Vietnam in 2011. I didn’t really know what activism or advocacy were. Not only because of my age — I was 11 — but also because of the environment that I was growing up in. We were told what to do. Then, in high school, my first experience with advocacy was a group called LOWER. It stood for “Land O’ Lakes Women’s Equal Rights.” My friend and I created this group as a forum for people to talk about the experience of being a woman in high school, the way the dress code affected us or the stigma associated with having a period. 

Then, in college, I realized that I carried another identity with me: being a first-gen low-income student. I didn’t know that it was a thing before arriving at college. Then, in my first semester, I started going to these meetings [with a group] called A Leg Even. The group is a Dwight Hall-affiliated organization, and at the time they were based out of the Afro-American Cultural Center (AFAM house). There, I received guidance and emotional support from upper-year friends. I saw what a good community can do for people and what it meant for me to have that kind of community and support. I realized that I wanted to be the older friend to the new people who would come into Yale after me, to help them feel at home by guiding them in the way that my friends guided me. 

Eventually, I became A Leg Even’s co-president, and it was an informative and meaningful experience. Now at Yale Med, I’m the Co-leader for the first-gen low-income medical students’ group. 

NS: Can you tell me a little bit more about how you came to Dwight Hall as an undergrad? And how that influenced your time at Yale?

HN: [A Leg Even] was affiliated with Dwight Hall, but I wouldn’t say that I was very tied to Dwight Hall as an undergraduate student. 

NS: So, do you think that you’ve come to have a closer relationship to Dwight Hall then as a med student?

HN: I would say relative to the average medical student, I have a closer tie to Dwight Hall. This is because I came into medical school from undergrad knowing what Dwight Hall is and what it does. However, in my role as a graphic designer of Dwight Hall’s communication team, I am trying to change this by making other people more aware of what the Hall can offer and what they can bring to the Hall and its associated groups.

NS: You mentioned that the goal of the comms team is to make Dwight Hall more open to people and get more people in the door. I’m wondering what you envision that looking like, especially for other grad students? 

HN: Being at Yale, we need to give back to New Haven. We need to work with the community, and not just exist in it and benefit from it without doing any work for it. This is not a sentiment that only I feel; a lot of people want to be involved. People want to make a difference in the community and use their skills, whatever they are, for good. I think Dwight Hall is a really good venue for that. It can connect students, undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to people and groups that are doing meaningful work that align well with each student’s values and needs.

NS: This is on a more personal level, but I’m curious if that has anything to do with why you stayed in New Haven for med school?

HN: There’s a multitude of reasons why I chose to stay in New Haven. One, because I moved to America when I was 11, and then I moved to Connecticut by myself when I was 17. I was tired of moving. Plus, I already had a lot of support here, and I felt attached to the city and university. For example, I volunteer as a translator for New Haven Legal Aid for a Vietnamese woman who only speaks Vietnamese. We helped her file for divorce from her abusive husband, and we helped her file for paperwork for her green card extension. That process took two years. I also volunteered for two years at Yale-New Haven Hospital’s pediatric oncology unit. So, I felt like I had many ties to this community. Having the opportunity to stay around and continue being part of New Haven and Yale was a huge privilege for me. 

NS: So, shifting gears a little bit toward the painting. I’m wondering if you could first just tell me what sparked your passion for art and why it’s been important to you?

HN: I always enjoyed drawing when I was younger. When I moved here, I didn’t speak any English, so I sat in the classroom and just felt completely helpless because of the language barrier. I found art to be an easy way to show my personality and communicate with my classmates.

 At the time, my family didn’t have money for art supplies. My parents uprooted themselves and came to America with a few thousand dollars for six people. For context, when we came to America, we stayed with our grandma in Florida and she had a three bedroom apartment. So it was my family of six, her, my aunt, and then eventually two more families that moved in. So at one time, there were 18 people in the house. It was very hectic. At the time, art was my only constant. I was intrigued by watercolor, but I didn’t have the money to buy art supplies. We had these free washable markers and I experimented with those. I dabbed the marker on my finger and then dropped water on my finger and put it onto paper. It looked pretty decent to me at the time. So I started with that. 

Then, in college, I did a seminar called the Art of Watercolor. It was so exciting because I got to paint and I got free art supplies. So, I started painting a lot. One time, my professor saw a painting of him that I made and he asked if he could buy it. That was a moving moment. I felt validated and motivated because other people also enjoyed the art that I made. 

NS: Thank you for sharing that. Yeah, so then, I guess my last question is about this beautiful painting you did of Dwight Hall. What was the process like for creating that? And did you have a lot of creative license?

HN: Dwight Hall wanted more students and student artists to be involved with the Hall, and I was very honored that they thought of me. Yale doesn’t lack good artists. And if given the opportunity like I was given, a lot of people can be creative. The only direction I was given was how large the painting should be. I did a tour of the Hall and I talked to Peter and Lydia about what I was thinking, but I was given a lot of creative license. I was told that it was going to go on the back of the cover [of the 2021 Year in Review]. In terms of the process, I sort of just freehanded the outline from a photo and then I painted, and it took me quite a long time because oil paint takes so long to dry and it’s such a big painting. I painted throughout winter break, and I really enjoyed it. I usually don’t spend enough time looking at the scenery of Yale, and this painting gave me an opportunity to take in the details. I appreciated the opportunity because Dwight Hall is an organization that does meaningful things for Yale and the larger New Haven community, and I’m proud to be affiliated with it. 

NS: Okay, my last question has nothing to do with the painting, but I think it’s fun. What are your three favorite things about New Haven?

HN: Oh, man. There’s so many things I like about New Haven. I think that New Haven is where you get to meet everyone and you have the opportunity to meet and learn from so many people of all walks of life. I also really, really like the seasons and the trees that we get here. My walks have been beautiful recently with all the blooming things. And I love the natural part of the city. Edgerton Park. I love that place. I love West Rock, I love East Rock and Wooster Square. I just love all of the greenery.

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