Carolina has helped Angela Nguyen realize her career and academic goals. At age 45, this first-generation college student will walk across the Winter Commencement stage, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies.
Angela Nguyen likes to say that both obstacles and opportunities kept her from finishing her undergraduate degree in a timely fashion.
The 45-year-old first-generation college student (the oldest of five sisters) has had multiple jobs in football operations at Carolina since 2014, some full time, some part time. She often worked long hours while juggling classes. Those opportunities were a dream come true for the lifelong football fan, who cherishes the impact she has made on the lives of student athletes.
But last fall Nguyen reached a critical juncture when some friends and family members died or were diagnosed with terminal illnesses. She decided to fast-track finishing her degree, which she had pursued on and off since 2008. She let go of the UNC Athletics job she loved so she could focus on her studies full time.
“It was devastating to me when I had to tell my boss, associate athletic director Corey Holliday, that I was leaving. He’s one of the most phenomenal people I’ve ever worked for,” Nguyen said. “But I realized how precious time is, and now that I’m here and close to graduation, I know it was the right decision for me.”
Nguyen had originally declared a psychology major, but an elective course in religious studies ignited a spark to learn more about that discipline. The course was “Supernatural Encounters: Zombies, Vampires, Demons and the Occult in the Americas,” taught by associate professor Brendan Jamal Thornton.
“It was so eye-opening to me from a world perspective. I was excited to get to this class every single day. When it was over, I was like, ‘Can we have another 30 minutes?’’’ she said. “Those of us who have taken classes with him joke that we have a ‘Thornton minor.’ I’ve taken every single class he’s taught except for one. He’s a phenomenal professor, and he’s passionate about what he teaches.”
Nguyen said her decision to change her major was easy.
“When you’re a nontraditional student and you find something that is so invigorating to you and that brings out this passion, you go in that direction,” she said. “It’s helped me to unravel questions about my childhood and to understand from a larger framework why people believe what they do.”
Her biggest cheerleader in encouraging her to pursue her academic dreams? Her fiancé, Chris Young, who was also a nontraditional student. He graduated in 2020 from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. They met at Carolina.
“We had so many things in common. Being older students, he was going through all the trials and tribulations I was going through,” she said. “And as a lifelong Carolina fan, graduating from here was a dream come true for him, too.”
Nguyen said nontraditional students face unique academic hurdles, but they also bring value to the classroom because of their life experiences.
“Your life is busier than most students who are 18 to 21 years old,” Nguyen said. “You have obligations and unforeseeable events that could interfere with your plans. The hardest thing you must do is continuously put your interests and aspirations first. You have to have resilience and tenacity to keep pushing ahead.”
Miguel Jackson in UNC’s Office of Digital and Lifelong Learning said Nguyen has had “devotion, drive and a desire for ongoing improvement” in her quest to finish her degree.
Nguyen is not sure yet what her next dream job will be. She wants to take time to celebrate her accomplishments. Meaningful work with graduate students has opened her eyes to the possibility of applying to graduate school. She added that she will miss the hours of intellectual conversations she has had with many people on campus and the energy of being at Carolina.
As she walks across the Commencement stage at the Dean E. Smith Center on Dec. 11, Nguyen said she knows it will feel surreal.
“When I picked up my cap and gown a couple of weeks ago, I started to tear up when the cashier handed it to me, just thinking about how many times I’ve attempted to get here. To know that I am closing this chapter is probably one of the most emotional and amazing feelings of my life.”
By Kim Spurr, College of Arts and Sciences