Stop by the Dairy Store for a scoop of ice cream, and you might find Duy Nguyen’s smiling face behind the counter.
Nguyen has managed the store since January 2020. In the past year, he’s found joy in working for his alma mater, helping students learn new skills, and connecting with visitors of all kinds as they pick out the perfect tasty treat.
“It’s not just selling ice cream,” Nguyen said. “I have a great connection with the community, and I have a chance to meet and work with different students to help them grow and be successful.”
Loving his job has always come easily — mostly because he never thought he’d end up here.
Growing up with seven siblings in a small village outside Bien Hoa, Vietnam, Nguyen was often hungry and lacked the resources to go to school.
“I went out and worked early,” he said.
“The way we lived is, we had food for lunch, and then we had to get out and look for food for dinner day by day. Education is something that didn’t matter at the time because when you’re hungry, you don’t care about school or anything at all. All you care about is food and how to survive.”
Nguyen moved to the United States in 2012, two years after his parents. He knew no English when he set foot in Lincoln.
“I didn’t even know ‘Hello, goodbye,’ whatever. I was about 21 years old,” Nguyen said. “I went to high school for about six months and learned English over there. After one semester, I went to Southeast Community College to continue learning English. I was taking general classes over there for about two years. In 2015, I transferred to UNL.”
At the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Nguyen found a passion in hospitality, restaurant and tourism management.
“My English is limited, so it’s very hard for me to go to a large class where I have to speak — but hospitality is a hands-on major,” Nguyen said.
“I’m lucky, because along with school, I worked at Hy-Vee, Mongolian Grill and different places. That’s how I learned English— just speaking to the customer and learning day by day, and basically being with someone who speaks English a lot and learning from them too.”
In the HRTM program, Nguyen met other students like him.
“It’s really fun,” Nguyen said. “A lot of international students pick hospitality, because they can practice their English. In my class there were always different people from Asia, Europe, America — that’s why I chose it, for the strong diversity.”
After graduating in 2019, Nguyen managed the downtown Lincoln Panda Express. When he saw an opening for the Dairy Store manager position, he applied right away.
“I always wanted to work for the university since I was in school, because my parents never had a chance to work for the government or big companies,” he said.
Nguyen said he’s enjoyed the mission-driven aspect of the Dairy Store, which has served handmade ice creams, cheeses and meats to the Lincoln community since 1917.
“It’s a very different environment compared to my previous job because over here, while we focus on making profit, the more important thing is student success,” Nguyen said. “Students can actually practice their food science, hospitality or leadership skills.”
The challenges Nguyen has faced have given him a unique perspective on the world, which he uses in his everyday interactions with members of the campus community.
“I try to see the positive side of every story in everyone,” he said.
“I always love to serve, because I see how my parents struggled when I was little. So that brings me a strong motivation. It doesn’t matter what happens right now in the moment — it’s not as big as what my parents were faced with.”
Today, Nguyen’s parents and one of his siblings live in Lincoln. Several other siblings live across the country, and two are still in Vietnam with plans to move when they are older.
“My parents, when they came here, it was hard — but they’re still happy, because now they can buy a house, buy food or whatever. Compared to before, it is way better,” Nguyen said.
He’s happy to call himself a Husker, and content with how far he’s come.
“When I work for the university, I make my parents proud of me too,” he said.