Ho Nguyen has taught at St. Mary’s College of Maryland since 1979. He was a full-time economics professor until 2008, when he began working part-time as the director of Asia Initiatives at St. Mary’s, a program which assists students in studying and interning in Asia.
1) Why did you decide to teach at St. Mary’s?
Before I came to St. Mary’s, I taught at a large university in Canada. The classes were very large and there was no interaction between students and professors – very impersonal. Here, I’m able to learn my students’ names by the first or second day. There is a better sense of community, closeness and interaction. Neither students nor faculty are ‘just a number.’
2) St. Mary’s faculty and students embrace travel—where have you traveled recently?
This summer I led a group of six students to Shanghai for an internship program as part of the Asia Initiatives program. This program allows students from any major to intern in Shanghai. We had a mix of majors: economics, language, math, and pre-med. But before that trip, I walked El Camino de Santiago, or the “Way of St. James,” a pilgrimage route that leads people to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
3) Why did you decide to walk the Camino?
That’s a long story that begins when I was three years old in a small Vietnamese village. When the French, who colonized Vietnam then, came to raid our village, I hid with my mother and little sister in a rice paddy. Her name was Bac-Hai. We hid up to our necks in the paddy, causing my sister and me to contract polio. I survived the disease, but she did not. In the spring of 2010, I got a knee replacement for my leg weakened by the polio. So then I could take on the Camino, which I had heard of but had never been able to consider because of my leg. I walked the Camino basically for two reasons: to give thanks for my new lease on life, and in remembrance of my sister who lost her life and never had the opportunities that I enjoy today.
4) Can you tell us more about El Camino de Santiago?
The Camino has been a tradition since medieval times. There are 31 variants of the path to Santiago de Compostela, but I walked the traditional path, which begins in a town in Southern France, crossing the Pyrenees then heading west across the widest part of Spain. Traditionally, pilgrims walk with a stone from home, signifying their reason for walking. On the highest point of the Camino de Santiago there is a cross called “la Cruz de Ferro,” where pilgrims leave their stone. The path is 800 kilometers (500 miles) long. It took me 33 days of walking. I left my stone at the base of the cross in remembrance of my sister.
5) What were the best parts of your experience walking El Camino?
Every person walking has a reason, so people enjoy meeting one another and talking about their lives. I met many interesting people, like a couple who met four years ago walking the Camino and are now walking again before their wedding, and a man spreading his father’s ashes along the path. You meet so many people, so there’s a fellowship and camaraderie among the pilgrims. We stayed together in hostels or convents along the way at night and enjoyed speaking of our life experiences over food and, always, red wine. All the pilgrims are heading the same direction, sharing the same exhaustion and pain, so it’s easy to become close. I also enjoyed the solitude of walking alone, especially early in the morning, before the sunrise.
6) And how’s the new knee?
My knee is fine! My surgeon said I could do the walk as long as I used two hiking poles, so I did. The toughest part was getting down the mountains. Northern Spain is very mountainous, and on some mountains I could barely control my descent, even with the sticks. Coming down from la Cruz de Ferro was the hardest part. I could never have done it without my new knee.
7) When and where will your next adventure be?
I plan to walk the Camino again next year, starting from Southern Portugal this time going north. It’s a great way to celebrate life and remember my sister.