Asians at Hamilton
Maya Nguyen-Haberneski

Maya Nguyen-Haberneski

Where are you from? That depends. Do you want the short or long answer? Assuming that the majority of people who ask me this question don’t want my whole life story I usually reply with something along the lines of “I was born in Viet Nam and went to high school in Missoula, MT.” Yet that response doesn’t even begin to address the places I’ve lived and the experiences I have gone through. So here’s the longer version.

I was born in Viet Nam with my twin sister Arianna (Ari for short). Shortly after birth, we were found outside of an orphanage in Viet Tri with a letter from our biological mother. According to that letter, she was 19 and unmarried when she had us. She also wrote that her parents had threatened to kill her if she made the decision to raise us. To this day, this is all we know about our biological mother.

Spoiler alert: Ari and I were adopted and brought to the US when we were ten months old. Yet before our adoption was finalized, the Vietnamese authorities had to conduct a 90 day search for our biological parents. It was in this search period when 9/11 happened and as a result there was some uncertainty as to whether or not the adoption would go through. Eventually my parents (adoptive, not biological) were able to fly to the other side of the world and back to adopt me and Ari. We landed in Albuquerque, New Mexico in December of 2001, just in time for our first Christmas.

Since then I’ve lived in Maine, Colorado, Oregon, New Mexico (again), and Montana. My mom, Ari, and I moved to MT in 2010 after my parents got divorced. And no, I never rode a horse to school! There were a lot of changes that happened during that part of my life, but something that remained constant was gymnastics. I started doing gymnastics when I was in first grade because I was a wild child and my parents thought it would be a good activity into which I could transfer some of that wild kid energy. After moving to MT, I began competing. My mom and Ari would travel around the state and sit on hard metal bleachers for hours on end to watch the competitions. They never had any problem locating me on the warm up floor. I may have been short (let’s face it, I still am), but I also had short black hair. And among the sea of children with blond hair, I stuck out, which I didn’t mind. I already stuck out with my mad gymnastics skills that brought me to the top of the podium.

However, the lack of racial diversity wasn’t unique to competitive gymnastics in MT. My experience at school wasn’t much different. In a classroom with about 30 students there would be one, maybe two other students of color… and oftentimes that other student would be my sister. My school had a whole week devoted to diversity, yet I had a difficult time relating to those presentations because they rarely addressed racial diversity. None of my teachers identified as a person of color and all but one of my friends were white. Don’t get me wrong – they were (and still are) amazing people! Aside from Ari, I wasn’t surrounded by people who looked like me. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and be surprised – never ashamed or discouraged, just surprised – to see a Vietnamese teenager staring back at me. I got so used to being surrounded by Caucasian people that I sometimes forgot about my appearance that distinctly places me into the category of “Asian.”

And then, thanks to being matched through the QuestBridge scholarship program, I came to Hamilton which, like most colleges and universities, is a predominantly white institution. Yes, the racial make-up of the classroom is similar to that which you would see in MT, but for me it felt different. I’ve taken classes taught by faculty of color and the majority of my friends are of Asian descent. In French class I’ve gotten to read works by Vietnamese authors, and I’ve even had the opportunity to conduct an independent study on Vietnamese Water Puppetry! It would be an understatement to say that Hamilton has provided me with a completely different experience from high school. And I’m not saying that Hamilton’s work is done. I think a lot still needs to happen to make students of color feel comfortable on campus. Hopefully this project will get Hamilton one step closer to having a truly inclusive and welcoming environment.​

In the summer, when I’m not at school, I go home to Binghamton, New York. Ari goes to Vassar and my mom wanted to live somewhere in between the two colleges. Because of the pandemic I haven’t been able to get out and explore the town. But that’s something I look forward to doing in the future.​

So, where am I from? Well, that’s a loaded question and it only seems fit to give back a loaded answer. I was born in Viet Tri, Viet Nam. When I was ten months old I was adopted and moved to the US. I’ve lived in New Mexico, Maine, Colorado, Oregon, and Montana. Now I go to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York and when I’m not at school I live in Binghamton. Does that answer the question?