First-gen college student, entrepreneur and AIM youth academy participant AnhPhu Nguyen lands scholarships to Harvard, Stanford

Posted on in AIM Newsroom, Community, Tech Education, Youth

AnhPhu Nguyen is going to Harvard.

The 2021 Papillion La Vista High School graduate and entrepreneur recently received a full-ride scholarship to the university, where he’ll study computer science and economics. (He was also offered a full scholarship from Stanford, but opted for the Cambridge institution instead.) Getting to this point has been quite a journey for Nguyen, but he said he’s up for the challenge. 

Being ready for difficulties is his operating mode.

His family came to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was six years old. Neither he nor his family spoke any English, but Nguyen was put in an ESL program that helped him learn the language quickly.

His parents, however, continue to speak Vietnamese primarily. This has helped Nguyen maintain a vital sense of connection to his heritage (he can still speak Vietnamese) but has also been challenging. As with a lot of first-generation-to-higher-education students, Nguyen’s parents could not provide much guidance on researching scholarships, filling out countless applications and financial aid forms, or any of the other tasks that many high school students take for granted.

“It’s really difficult, especially since we immigrated to America,” Nguyen said. “My parents don’t really know English. They never got a college degree, they didn’t have drivers’ licenses, and we barely had any money. So we lived pretty low-income for most of my life, until I started my business.”

Fortunately, he said, joining the AIM Institute’s Upward Bound Youth Academy program as a freshman helped him improve his situation. Upward Bound helps first-generation and low-income students optimize their pre-college performance and navigate the application and admissions process.   

“(The fact that Upward Bound) was like a college access club for first-generation and low-income students is what initially drew me to AIM,” he said, adding that the program also helped him deepen his knowledge of technology.

This knowledge of tech came in handy when he started his business after his sophomore year of high school.

In addition to his stellar academic achievements, Nguyen’s an incredibly self-motivated entrepreneur. Two years ago, he launched Phu’s Phone Emporium, a company that buys, sells and fixes iPhones. To do that, first he had to teach himself how to repair phones. Then he had to learn how to keep track of inventory, pay taxes, market himself, and handle all the other tasks that come with running a small business.

“I had to learn all the tricks of the trade and everything like that,” Nguyen said.

And he had to do it while juggling the academic and social demands of being a teenager in high school and building incredibly complex projects out of Legos, one of his favorite pastimes.

He’s so good, in fact, that last year he was invited to audition for season two of the Fox television show Lego Masters. 

After seeing viral video footage of the automatic coin sorter that Nguyen had built out of Legos and posted on Reddit, a producer reached out to him. Nguyen constructed what he called “a huge build” for his initial virtual audition. Unfortunately, he did not make it to the second round. But he’s fine with that. Getting on the show would’ve been a two-month ordeal that would require him to miss school and travel to Los Angeles during a pandemic.

More important than fleeting television fame is the success Nguyen has been able to accomplish so far. None of it has come easy. He said it has required the help of teachers, friends, family and the AIM Upward Bound program, not to mention his own hard-fought resilience. 

“Being a first-gen immigrant, it’s hard to understand the college process because your parents don’t know anything about it, since they never went there,” he said.

Still, his parents remain incredibly supportive. While his dad offered a stoic “good job” when Nguyen told them about his scholarship to Harvard, his mom was a little more demonstrative. 

“My mom was so excited,” he said. “She cried so much. She cried, like, all night.”

The secret to his success?

“You can always work harder than you think you can,” he said. 

He speaks from his own experience (obviously). After completing his sophomore year, for instance, Nguyen launched his business. At the same time, he enrolled in five college-level AP classes.

“I thought I would never have enough time to run my business and take all those classes,” he said. “I was really doubting myself, but my cousin told me something that really stuck with me: you can do a lot more than you think you can. You just have to try it.”

So he did, and not only kept his business open and excelled in all his classes, he also managed to do “a bunch of other stuff” too. He credits the Reminders app on his phone for helping him stay on top of everything. 

And though some of his teachers might not appreciate hearing it, Nguyen said he was able to use class time to multitask, messaging customers throughout the day while learning the material. (His schoolwork did not suffer, if his scholarship to Harvard is any indication.) But he did try to be discreet about it, he said.

Does he feel nervous as a first-generation college student entering one of the most rarefied institutions in the country? A little bit, he said, but working with AIM through the Upward Bound program has helped prepare him. 

“Most of the kids at Harvard, 80 percent of them, their parents went to Harvard,” he observed. “Most of them are rich, with tutors and all that. I’m at a slight disadvantage, but AIM has helped with all that.”

Though anxious about entering such a demanding environment—not to mention missing his family and leaving behind his first business—Nguyen said he’s still excited to keep moving forward.

“What I’m most looking forward to is moving away and starting a whole new life,” he said. “When I move to Boston, I have to throw basically my whole business away. All my customers (will be) gone. I’ll have to live in a tiny dorm that I share with another person, so I won’t be able to run my business as big, if at all.”

But, he added, the fact that he will spend four years hanging out with so many driven, talented students is inspiring—and well worth the price of admission.