From his local community in Saigon to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, USA, Nhan Phan’s journey is a testament to the power of creativity and ambition. Despite the challenges of leaving his comfort zone, especially during a pandemic, he wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity for academic and intellectual growth.
Growing up in Saigon, Nhan found comfort in the close-knit community but felt limited by the routine of Vietnamese life. When he moved to Exeter for high school, he faced the COVID-19 pandemic during his freshman year, which initially left him feeling isolated. However, he adapted by staying open-minded and turning challenges into learning opportunities.
Nhan is currently a senior at Exeter, and during his three years there, he has been actively involved in many aspects of the school community. He leads various culture and community service clubs, including Exeter Student Service Organization (ESSO), International Student Alliance (ISA), the Asian Advisory Board, and the school newspaper, among others. Nhan also organizes International Student Orientation (ISO), a four-day program for international students at Exeter. Through these activities, he has discovered new passions and reconnected with his Vietnamese culture. Now, he is helping others do the same. (Fun fact: I met Nhan through ISO during my freshman year.)
On top of that, Nhan also hosts a podcast where he explores historical relics in Vietnam and their significance in the country’s narrative.
In this Study Abroad series, Nhan will share his daily routines, commitments, and obstacles at Exeter. Most importantly, he will discuss how the experience has helped him grow and gain a new perspective on life.
On his preparation before leaving Vietnam
I grew up in Vietnam and studied at a Vietnamese school until fifth grade, when I transitioned to an international school. Life was simpler then. There is a kind of familiarity with Saigon that was comforting yet limiting. In what feels like a giant metropolis, there are little bubbles of community within Saigon. Perhaps, having several figures in my childhood that I know— the pop shop owner outside the alleyway where my previous house was located, a vendor in Ben Thanh Market, etc.— made Saigon feel smaller in some ways. The constant rotation of school, hanging out with friends at the mall, roaming the city for cafes to work and write in, and then returning home to rest became mundane to me.
As a result, I didn’t know what to expect coming to the US. Another thing is that I left during the pandemic. Emotionally, it was a hard time as I was entering an even more foreign horizon than I had imagined. Everything I thought I should do changed. Learning online for the first half of my first year was difficult. Everyone was making friends while I was isolated and confined to a computer screen. But as time neared, excitement grew, and I was entering this process with an open mind: let’s just make it there first and see how it goes.
I also had to, in truth, act like an adult. Everything from managing a bank account, applying for a visa, and managing subscriptions and money, fell upon me to manage. I wanted to take the initiative and do all these things because these processes are key to living independently.
On his daily routine
In the morning: waking up, morning routine (shower, brushing teeth, changing), breakfast. I tend to check the news in the morning and my schedule for the day. The morning includes classes with several breaks in between. These breaks are either scheduled meetings, other required appointments, or time that I use to make progress on my homework/work.
Lunch: I eat lunch with my friends and then hang out with them until afternoon classes begin. Sometimes, I have lunch meetings with the different groups I am a part of.
Afternoon: After afternoon classes and required PE appointments, I either go to the gym when I have spare time, attend other meetings, or get ahead on work.
Evening: Dinner with friends (sometimes I have dinner meetings) and any required/club meetings. On days when I don’t have meetings, I often do work in the library with my friends or in my dorm room.
Note: I don’t do work on Friday and Saturday nights— I use those times to have fun with my friends instead. I also tend to get work done on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
On having an English name
My English name back then was Nick. I don’t remember how I first chose “Nick” as my English name; I guess it sounded succinct off the tongue, and it was a simple name to remember. Many people used their English names at an international school to make it easier for others to say them; I predominantly used my Vietnamese name to be true to who I am. Sometimes people use Nick for convenience, but I am fine with either.
On staying connected to his family and friends in Vietnam:
I talk to my family very often, once every day or two. With me growing up and living independently, my parents have treated me more as a grown-up. I’ve grown more appreciative of their support; even though they now often trust me to make the big decisions on my own, they trusted me a lot more after my first year of navigating the intricacies of the pandemic. But honestly, besides that, whenever I go home, things feel the same as they have ever been.
I have, in truth, lost a lot of connections with friends back home simply because everyone that I know has also matured and is confined within their own bubbles. We are all growing up, and with that comes more responsibilities, more work, and less time. It’s a shame, but that’s just the way life works.
On what keeps him going
I hope to have left a mark on Exeter and share as much of my identity and experience as possible. I also have some passion projects that I hope to complete before my time at Exeter ends. But most importantly, I want to spend as much time as possible with my friends and make memories with the group of people that I love. This is because my time in high school is short and precious; these will probably be the people that I have known for my whole life. I want to spend my time doing things that are important: friends and family are at the top of that list.
On building relationships abroad
My friend group has a mix of people but is predominantly Asian. But we have people from different places who are all good at different things (athletes, writers, artists, musicians, dancers, etc.). Such is the beauty of Exeter; so many people are good at so many things, and you have this unique opportunity to meet them. However, there is a very small Vietnamese community on campus. Even though I am friends with all of them, we all are part of separate friend groups.
On the importance of nurturing creativity
I love to travel, write, and learn about global issues impacting the world today. At Exeter, the work that I do in extracurriculars revolves around these interests (Model UN, Exonian, etc.). As previously mentioned, I also embark on personal projects that give me a chance to present my work to the Exeter community.
On what he learned from studying abroad
Time is precious, and I found myself re-evaluating my work commitments and priorities. It became clear to me that there are things that matter more than just my job. I want to spend my time doing things that create meaningful memories.
Being an adult comes with responsibilities, and I had to handle various important aspects to succeed and thrive in this new environment.
But it’s not just about handling practical matters; I also realized that I must be my best self. If I don’t believe in my capabilities or work toward achieving my dreams, then who will do it for me? I must love and appreciate myself, for if I don’t, others won’t either.
In this new chapter of my life, I am determined to make the most of every opportunity, embrace challenges, and build a future I can be proud of. It’s about self-empowerment and taking charge of my journey.
On how his outlook on life has evolved
I feel ready to grow up. I didn’t think so a couple of years ago. It’s a short answer, but really that’s all there is. I feel like I have done everything I wanted to do in my high school career. I want to dream bigger and be able to pursue my passions.
On his hopes for the future
I want to do something that allows me to travel and see the world while embarking on some creative project. Coming to Exeter has made me appreciate different perspectives, cultures, and customs better. I want to record stories of communities, people, places, and history and somehow be a storyteller in multiple ways, working with multiple mediums. But at the same time, I want to enact change with my storytelling. I want to possess agency in contributing to different communities.
With that being said, I’m not sure what my future looks like exactly, but that’s okay. My mom says, “Do what you want, but think about whether it will pay the bills.” I’m keeping this advice in mind when I figure out what I might want to do in the future.
This or That
Movies or books?
Fresh juice or smoothie?
Shopping in-store or online?
Instagram or Twitter?
Give a speech or write a paper?