CLTL grad student remains resilient while abroad during COVID-19

Kay Nguyen
Nguyen and Nyabigomi, Kinigi community members at a local event in July 2021.

In the summer of 2021, Kay Nguyen was on her way to spend three months in Rwanda to study the youth career aspirations in and around Volcanoes National Park. However, just three weeks after arriving in Rwanda, a nation-wide COVID-19 lockdown was mandated.  

Now a recent graduate of the 10th Cohort within the Conservation Leadership Through Learning program, Nguyen was left with a choice to stay and attempt to make the best of her research or complete her capstone for the master’s degree at home.  

For her, the decision was simple.  

“This was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Nguyen said. “I knew I had the ability to learn more about myself and how to navigate the world around me when I’m in a situation as difficult as this one was.” 

Despite her resilience, it was difficult time for the 2019 graduate of Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. For three weeks, Nguyen was completely alone in an AirBnB and isolated from an unfamiliar outside world. During that time Nguyen tried to give herself a familiar routine and gather as much research as possible. 

In the beginning of August ‘21, the lockdown was lifted, and Nguyen had the opportunity to continue connecting with the locals and delve deeper into her project. 

“I was stubborn and tried to persevere as much as I could,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to stay, so I kept telling myself it was worth it. But honestly, I think it was just a lot of luck and I had the support of Brett [Bruyere] so it made me feel like I could really do it.” 

Brett Bruyere, academic director for CLTL and associate professor for the department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, reassured her every step of the way and looks back at Nguyen’s time in the program with pride.  

Much of her time spent abroad, she would interview locals of the community and the staff at Gorilla Guardian Village within the national park. Nyabigomi, Kinigi, in the Northern Province of Rwanda, is a collection of small and fragmented villages located on the edge of the park boundary. Subsistence farming and livestock herding are the primary livelihoods, but some argue that the communities are still dependent on the park for resources.  

“As land scarcity and economic loss continue to grow, my main goal was to understand attitudes towards different career aspirations of youths, including conservation,” Nguyen said. “A large part of this is also taking the time to learn and understand the potential barriers to these youth achieving their livelihood goals.”   

Choosing Colorado State University and CLTL

Kay Nguyen
Nguyen and Nyabigomi, Kinigi community members at a local event in July 2021. 

Born and raised in Vietnam, travelling to the United States for her undergraduate degree in 2016 was Nguyen’s first time going abroad alone.  

After graduating from Angelo State University with a degree in communications, she considered what she wanted to do next and how to make her education and time away from home something worthwhile.  

Nguyen said she has always had a love for animals and wildlife and had an interest in the field of conservation. However, finding a graduate program that would accept her communications background was a difficult task. 

“It was a perfect fit for me,” Nguyen said. “In terms of the educational background experience that I have, I think it’s really special and unique that you don’t have to be a biologist or scientist to do conservation. You want people with every background with a conservation-driven mind, so they can use their own skills and assets to help conservation as a movement.”   

 While reflecting on her time in Rwanda, Nguyen said the experience was as enriching as she had imagined.  

 “Academically, it was a massive period of growth,” Nguyen said. “This was my first time doing research like this and having such a hands-on experience was amazing. I’ve been on my own before, but this time in Africa, it was so different.”  

 “It’s a completely different culture, different environment, different things that I have to get used to, but I learned so much about myself, how to adapt and how to find support when I need it.” 

 A part of the 10th Cohort, Nguyen completed her degree in Fall 2021. For more information on the Conservation Leadership Program, visit the program website