Born to Cambodian refugees, assistant professor Federick Ngo has channeled his experience and the opportunities he was afforded to make an impact in higher education and in the lives of students from diverse backgrounds. And what better place to try than on the most diverse campus in the nation?
The inspiration to get into your field
I taught math at a public school in Oakland, California, for about six years. I loved my school, and I thought we did our part getting our students ready and excited for college. Most went to local community colleges — and most eventually dropped out. I wanted to know why and what could be done about it.
The biggest misconception about your field
I teach in the graduate program in higher education. A lot of folks have no idea what that means, but it is a whole field devoted to understanding what goes on in higher education. And it’s a very exciting and important field of study! I get to think and write about higher education policy and college access issues all day, and other higher education researchers are tackling important topics like diversity and racism on campus, financial aid, college student experiences, higher education finance, and intercollegiate athletics. The master’s and doctoral programs in higher education at UNLV are training the future leaders of the field.
What drew you to UNLV?
What an amazing opportunity there is to do innovative research in education and especially higher education here in Las Vegas and at UNLV. I believe there is so much that the rest of the U.S. and the rest of higher education can learn from one of the most diverse cities and campuses in the nation. We need to be telling the stories that are being lived here.
Tell us a funny story about one of your colleagues.
One of my colleagues, Stefani Relles of educational psychology and higher education, lives in a tiny-home community with a pet alpaca.
Your toughest day on campus
The few days after the October 1st shooting were surreal. It was just about a month and a half since I joined the faculty at UNLV, and I tried to do my best to make space in my class for people to process what had happened. What is unnerving is that I have done this far too often in my career in education. A student’s gun death also marked the beginning of my high school teaching career, and five others followed over the next six years — all due to senseless gun violence. Dealing with this kind of grief and trauma is something I just don’t think we should be experienced with. We need to do something about it.
Your favorite secret spot on campus
I really love what they are doing at Rebel Grounds in Hospitality Hall. I get coffee and food there all the time.
The most Vegas thing you’ve done since you got here
Bingo. But I pay extra for the tablet!
A breakthrough in your field you wish you had made
All of the research coming out of The Equality of Opportunity Project is incredible. They have amazing data (which they share), and they have a team that is creating easily-consumable research with compelling graphic visualizations. I think their work has really expanded people’s understanding of the sources and consequences of inequality in today’s society.
The world problem you would most like to fix
Two that are closely tied together: wealth inequality and racial inequality.
An object in your office and what it represents to you
I have a photo of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. My parents are refugees from Cambodia and survived the genocide there. They came to the U.S. with nothing but have managed to give me a life beyond my dreams. The photo reminds me of my roots, the privilege I have, and the need to give back.
Something people would be surprised to learn
“Federick” is kind of a unique name to have, though I do admit it is a pretty perfect name for a professor. I’ve had mixed feelings about it over the years — everyone thinks I misspell it, and it’s obviously the name of the colonizer — but I have come to appreciate it. “Federick” is actually the name of a French doctor who was working in the refugee camp my mom lived in after she fled Cambodia for Thailand. She became his translator and they saved many lives together. That is who I am named after.
Your biggest pet peeve
Meetings that do not need to be had. This includes meetings that could have just been summarized in an email, meetings whose sole purpose is to schedule other meetings, and meetings for the sake of meetings.
The last show you binge-watched
Terrace House. It’s nice to see Asians on screen in non-stereotypical ways. The commentators are hilarious. Two words to pique your interest: “meat crime.”
A moment for which you would like a “do-over”
It was the year 2000 and I had just started my freshman year of college. My best friend from high school came out to a group of us over AIM (AOL Instant Messenger). For you younger folks, it is like Facebook Messenger but with cool screen names. I responded in judgment and fear when I should have responded in love and friendship. It’s the biggest regret of my life.
Best three-month stretch of the year
I love September-October-November because it’s when you don’t feel so guilty eating pastries.
Favorite holiday food or unique tradition for your family
I had a “Stinky Fish”-themed birthday party a few years ago because I love prahok, a fermented fish paste often used in Cambodian cuisine. My family said it was the smelliest but also best party we’ve ever had so it might need to be our new tradition.