Alumni: Where Are They Now? Catching up with Denise Hạnh Huỳnh ’07

Photo+courtesy+of+Denise+H%E1%BA%A1nh+Hu%E1%BB%B3nh+%E2%80%9907.

Photo courtesy of Denise Hạnh Huỳnh ’07.

Photo courtesy of Denise Hạnh Huỳnh ’07.
Photo courtesy of Denise Hạnh Huỳnh ’07.

Originally from the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park, first-generation college student Denise Hạnh Huỳnh graduated from Macalester in 2007 with a major in anthropology and a minor in psychology. After receiving her master’s in public policy from the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota, Huỳnh now works as a research associate at Wilder Research, a part of the non-profit community organization Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. She also spends her time working and volunteering for the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, the Vietnamese community and other communities that are often overlooked in public decision-making. And now she’s talking to us about life after Mac.

TMW: How’d you get to Mac?

I’m a first-generation college student, an English Language learner, and I come from a large family of refugees. Because of the Vietnam War, my parents’ education was interrupted and they didn’t have an opportunity to go to a four-year college, so I just didn’t know what I was doing when it came to applying for financial aid or what schools were my options. My parents just assumed I was going to go to the University of Minnesota. It was a sociology professor in high school who really encouraged me to go to Macalester. My first time visiting the Macalester campus, I came for a talk with Tim O’Brien. He’s a Macalester alum and he wrote The Things They Carried. It sounds dumb, but I was just really excited to just be on the campus. The trees were amazing, the talk was awesome and that pushed it over the edge for my decision to come here, which seems like a small thing, but it felt right.

Tell me about your path from Mac to working at Wilder.

I had several different jobs in St. Paul Public Schools while I was at Macalester. I did some ethnography and hands-on tutoring work in Highland Park High School. I was also an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) tutor. I ended up working in the schools after I graduated as a teaching assistant and while doing supporting youth leadership through AmeriCorps. I was also a child care provider at the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. All of those hands-on, direct experiences really just led me to realize I wanted to work on big-picture stuff. So that was part of my motivation for getting my master’s in public policy, with a focus on social policy analysis and museum studies. I worked as a graduate research assistant at the Science Museum of Minnesota in their evaluation and research department. That gave me a lot of really cool experience doing exhibit evaluation, doing visitor research, working on a lot of different issues. After that, I ended up at Wilder.

What kind of projects do you do at Wilder?

My focus is on informal education research and community-based evaluation and research. I work in the education unit in Wilder Research. It can vary from a project with the Minneapolis Heart Foundation on issues for OB/GYN providers and cardiac disease to working with the Minnesota Historical Society on the topic of American Indian art and artists, supporting that community and the work that they do. I work both within Wilder Research and Wilder Foundation, but I also get to work in the community. It can get a little frenetic, but it’s also fun to be able to touch on a lot of different things that are going on in the Twin Cities and especially to support communities (like my own communities) that are under resourced.

What are some of the best aspects of doing the work that you do?

I value doing good research and evaluation, getting information in the hands of the people who are most impacted by the data and using this information to make social change. I value all of this because I understand firsthand what it is like when you or your community are not understood, valued, or served. I love being a part of work that pushes back and reclaims community voice and visibility for my communities as well as other communities that face similar issues, so that we can all get what we need.

What are some unexpected hurdles?

Trying to figure out answers to questions like, “What are my expectations? How do I keep pushing towards this ideal that I’m interested in while also tempering my expectations and taking care of myself?” When you leave your master’s program, it’s often like, “I’m going to change the world.” And it’s not that I’m not doing things to hopefully work toward that, but I think that it’s more incremental change that I’m working on, which, when you’re working on systems change, gets exhausting sometimes.

If you could go back in time and talk to the person you were in college, what advice would you give yourself?

Be more careful about student loans. I went to school during a period where we were pretty devil-may-care about that, and because I’m a first-generation college student and had no idea what I was doing, I probably took out more than I should have. I’m working on it, but that’s something I would be more cautious about.

What experience did you have while at Mac that had the greatest influence on who you’ve become?

Working in the schools. I do think that that’s something Macalester students need to hear or know: getting off campus is really, really, really important for your development. It’s easy to get stuck in the “bubble” and get really caught up in campus life. It’s not that campus life isn’t important, but a lot of the really important experiences that I had, when it comes to what I decided I want to do or where I wanted to go next, happened off campus.

Do you keep in touch with any professors from Macalester?

The person who was my advisor and the person who was my unofficial advisor were two different people. My unofficial advisor is still harassing me about what to do next with my life. It’s good to have someone who cares about you and who can offer advice. Someone who you can bounce ideas off of and is still thinking about you long after you’ve graduated. Always have a mentor.

What advice would you give students that are entering the real world, life after Mac?

Anything that enables you to stand out and be a little bit different from what everyone else in your field looks like. For example, when I was in my master’s program, I decided to minor in museum studies. When I was in school, people were like, “What kind of weird combination is that?” And now I have this niche that other people don’t have. Pursue whatever you’re passionate in and whatever makes you different.

What do you want to do most in the future that you haven’t yet done?

I want to find more space and time to write more. My original passion was writing and I started falling away from it when I came to Macalester. I still have writer dreams and lots of notes tucked away everywhere and lists of different pursuits that I work on, on and off, but I need to make better time for it.

Anything else that I should know?

Don’t be afraid to just try different things. The path isn’t really linear; it’s not that you become this major and then you go into this job and then you’re done. It’s more interesting when you gather all these different types of experiences and look back and it culminates into who you are and what you do now.